Monoceros by Suzette Mayr

Monoceros by Suzette Mayr

Lately, I’ve been challenging myself to read more outside of my comfort zone. When I spotted Monoceros beautiful cover on the discount shelf at TYPE Books, I thought why not give it a shot? I read the summary on the back and it seemed alright. I was not disappointed! Inside was a beautiful and tragic story. Unfortunately, a real life tragedy occurred not too far from me, which is why you are getting this review two weeks later than I intended.

Monoceros opens with a chapter called “The End” because it is the final thoughts of 17-year-old Patrick Furey before he commits suicide. Bullied and broken, Patrick lists off too many reasons for why he did it. He is gay at a Catholic high school and his closeted secret boyfriend’s girlfriend torments him, telling him he should kill himself. Said secret boyfriend ignores him at school barely acknowledging his existence. His guidance counselor Walter (also in the closet) fails him, and his relationship with his parents isn’t great. The remaining chapters of the book are told from the perspectives of his classmates, teachers, family and a drag queen named Crêpe Suzette. As you read on you begin to realize that everyone’s lives are complicated. From the school principal on down to Faraday, one of Patrick’s classmates who wishes she had spoken to him, everyone is hurting in one way or another. No one is really bad or at fault (except maybe for Petra, his main bully), each of them hurt and hurting others in turn.

I was going to write about how the book tugs at your heart strings; how it is about life and not really about death. Then the news broke about another suicide at my alma mater. It was a first-year student barely older than Patrick, and while the student body at the university is much larger this particular death was the straw on that broke the campus’ back, or in this case, its heart. You could hear it shatter for miles. It ended up in the school paper and out into the greater press for the city calling for changes to mental health support at the institution.

I spent a lot of time deciding whether or not I should mention it in this review, but I think that is the whole point of reading Mayr’s book. There are a lot of Patrick Furey’s in the world, and we need to remember them and their stories. A lot of the book covers the experiences of the teachers, and what happens when the principal, Max, makes the decision to keep the news as swept under the rug as possible. There is no public announcement, no official wake. He calls a faceless superior authority for the “very Catholic school” who brings in grief counselors for a day and that is it. The students are hurting, but so are the staff. Monoceros is a book about living, and what happens to the people who carry on.

It all takes place in Calgary but you would think it’s a tiny town the way the characters intersect constantly. The adults and the teens of Patrick’s world meet briefly at bus stops and night clubs and the therapist’s office, somehow all sharing this heavy pain and not knowing each other has a share of it. That misconnection is the real problem in Mayr’s novel. Each character grapples with it in his or her own way trying to understand what it means to be a part of this quasi-mandatory community. By overcoming the distance and getting to know one another, they begin to see that they aren’t so different after all. They begin supporting each other, and receiving the space they need to be themselves.

Mayr’s prose is elegant but simple. She packs onto the page images which remind you how strange life is especially as a teenager. There are medieval illustrations of unicorns throughout that go along with the title, which is the name of a constellation depicting a unicorn, all of which is handily explained by Faraday who is unicorn-obsessed, but not with the pink Disney kind as she tells you. The history of medieval unicorns is weird and mostly perverted, and that energy carries over into the text. What better way to describe hormonal teenagers after all? There is a tone of irreverence even in the sweetest and saddest moments, and I found myself really hooked on this description of the guidance counselor’s computer screen:

Patrick Furrey’s tiny folder icon smoulders on the screen, a disorderly tic, a rogue wave, a cigarette butt screwed into the middle of a strawberry-rhubarb pie.

The book is All-Canadian, painting a very familiar high school scene for me with A&W burgers, The Wars, late shifts working at Timmies, and the specific politics of a public Catholic school system. Reading it the first time brought me a joy of nostalgia for some fun years in my life and a well of sadness for Patrick Furrey who no longer had it. That pain was magnified when I heard another student was lost.

Patrick is not a real person and yet he represents so many real people, as do the other characters. Mayr’s novel holds a special place for telling this story well. There is a lot that needs to happen at the institutional level as well as at a community level to prevent more losses, and you don’t have to read this novel to know it because of every now and then it’s breaking news. What Mayr’s book adds to this conversation is how we as individuals can help in the small ways, in being a little kinder both to ourselves and to others. In accepting ourselves for being a little odd because sometimes that is what makes a masterpiece.

If you need to talk, there are always people willing to listen:

  • Good2Talk Helpline – available 24/7 by calling 1-866-925-5454 or 2-1-1 from anywhere in Ontario.
  • Here 24/7: Addictions, Mental Health & Crisis Services (1-844-437-3247)
  • Good2Talk Support Line for Post-secondary Students (1-866-925-5454)
  • Kid’s Help Phone: 24/7 Canada-wide support for kids (1-800-668-6868)
  • Find your local crisis centre (all of Canada)