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Review of Back to the Land of the Living by Eva Crocker

Editorial assistant Tommy Duggan reviews Back to the Land of the Living by Eva Crocker (Anansi, 2023)

Eva Crocker’s Back to the Land of the Living begins with our protagonist Marcy Pike moving to pre-COVID Montreal from St. John’s on a journey of self-discovery and newfound independence. Marcy has all the plucky can-do of a classic literary heroine striking out on her own, but she’s not naïve, even if she’s never been on a subway before. But this isn’t a typical coming-of-age novel. We sense fairly soon that her surface-level people pleasing is something she will not grow out of in these pages and her external passivity belies an edginess lurking underneath. Also, while a partial impetus for Marcy to leave her hometown is to explore her queerness and escape the claustrophobia of St. John’s scene, Crocker’s treatment of queerness is most radical in the way setting, character and her stylistic choices centre it (our first gender neutral pronoun appears unassumingly on page two) than as fundamental conflict.1

What struck me most is the flâneuse in Marcy, both in how our protagonist explores the places and objects of her new city (tellingly in the opening pages through a derelict ‘arcade’ of the Desjardins Mall) and in how she encounters the various instances of precarity that come together to form a suffocating whole as the novel progresses.  

Back to the Land of the Living’s loose plotting and frequently slow and deliberate narration is remarkable in the way it focuses our attention on Marcy’s explorations of Montreal and brings us into her quotidian. There are long passages of Marcy exploring spaces and objects: neglected malls, streets, parks, and apartments, food, clothes. While she is searching for human intimacy with others, Crocker lives in Marcy’s sensory specifics in ways that stress her mindful, self-conscious, and individual exploration of her new life, rather than Marcy’s friends, who are lightly sketched in comparison. There is almost a phenomenological push-pull in how Crocker can zoom in on this sensitivity, bringing us closer, while also objectifying Marcy’s world in a way that creates distance for the reader—the way Marcy can savour a snack, a warm van dashboard, or a park scene. Readers will notice similarities to Crocker’s pervious novel All I Ask, and perhaps see a contrast with the choices in the frequently rollicking short fiction collection Barrelling Forward. These style choices reenforce the emotional isolation and loneliness Marcy reacts against and create a dissonance between this isolation and Marcy’s sensitivity. 

As we read, we see that Crocker’s darkest skirmish seems to be with the dystopian present of Marcy’s Montreal, and one of Crocker’s achievements is how intricately and gradually she exposes this antagonist. Early in the novel, we see how getting a popcorn at the dollar cinema means a trade-off later. And even once Marcy finds (part-time, gig) work, no beer is bought or date treated to a snack without anxiety. The characters barter, shoplift, fear bedbugs, crush cockroaches, apartment surf, and scrounge for appliances. Marcy’s main love interest counts the injury that gives her access to an insurance settlement as a blessing. These banal examples of poverty dot the novel in an act of pointillism until precarity reifies as the dominant adversary on the page.  

From Marcy’s earliest attempts to find tutoring clients, to her descent into increasingly alienating work (in both the Marxist and more general emotional sense), economic precarity swells. The world of connection that Marcy craves is a world she is forced to help erase through her work. She teaches AI to replace human judgement and interaction, trains a therapy app to replace counsellors with algorithms, and, as her bank balance gets lower, agrees to literally sell her blood for cash as a participant in a pharmaceutical trial. Capital expands throughout the novel into new spaces and chokes the relationships that Marcy moved to Montreal to find, while forcing her to serve its reproduction and growth, and her further isolation, with every gig she takes.   

While Marcy and her friends are somewhat aware of the systemic causes of their precarity, it is not clear they completely grasp its significance and they do not actively organize against it. They may listen to a Mark Fisher lecture and go to a Black Lives Matter protest, but Crocker only lightly sketches the internal political worlds of the other characters. The general attitude of the characters is one of distasteful tolerance or sporadic defiance: “I feel like, is the planet even going to exist in the time it takes me to get cancer?” Hannah shrugs, “Who knows.” Still, this does not come off as morose. Crocker manages to put a lot of humour in her novel, even while juxtaposing Marcy’s Mary Tyler Moore attitude of “I’m going to make it after all” with the increasingly bleak economic onslaught.  

If there is a political resistance to alienation under capitalism, it comes through in gentleness Marcy offers to those closest to her. Despite chest-squeezing anxiety and keen loneliness, she is unfailingly considerate towards other people. In a different novel, this quality might come off as superficial people-pleasing; in Crocker’s hands, it is powerful tenderness. The question raised for the reader is will this be enough. These two worlds or human desire and material oppression are left in tense opposition.  

Like the pieces of hate speech that “clattered unexpectedly into Marcy’s mind and stayed there for hours,” the precarity and worry do not so easily leave us when we put the book down.  


[1] Coincidentally, Rhea Rollman’s highly recommendable A Queer History of Newfoundland, the first book comprehensively exploring queer histories in Newfoundland, was released around the same time as Crocker’s novel.


— Tommy Duggan
from Chapel's Cove, NL, served as a Graduate Assistant for The Fiddlehead in 2023