Eliza Robertson’s debut novel “Demi-Gods” is an experience — like that of a total eclipse of the sun, both frightening and awe-inspiring as the moon swallows the sun, suddenly overpowering her daylight with his darkness.
“Demi-Gods'” sun is Patrick and its “changeling” moon Willa (or perhaps it’s the other way around), step-siblings living in mirror border towns by the sea — “one nudging the forty-ninth parallel, the other a twenty-minute cab ride to Tijuana.”
Like the sun and the moon, they chased each other out of the sky and didn’t exist in each other’s universes except for those six rare fleeting instances of totality between 1950 and 1961 — when they happen to be in the same time and place because of circumstances out of their control.
The first time happened in 1950 when Willa was nine and Patrick 11. Willa’s mother and Patrick’s father Eugene brought them together in Willa’s family’s beach house in Salt Springs Island, British Columbia. Willa got stung by a jellyfish and Patrick offered to pee on her arm to numb the pain (she wouldn’t let him, but peed on herself while Patrick listened) and dared Willa to intentionally poop in her underwear as collateral to hold their secrets.
The second time happened in 1953 when Willa was 12 and Patrick 14. Patrick’s older brother and Eugene’s son Kenneth brought the family together in San Diego because he was graduating high school. Willa’s mom and Patrick’s dad were still seeing each other. While the step-siblings were at the hotel pool, Patrick intentionally went into the girl’s changing room while Willa was showering and masturbated to the sight of her boobs.
The subsequent meetings are similarly dark and perverted — as if you were reading whispered taboo secrets or hearing the sea’s soft shhhhhhhhhhhh’s.
“Events between him and me seemed to occur on another membrane, which pulsed, here and there, into the membrane we all occupied, but which contracted when a third person entered the room,” wrote Robertson from Willa’s first person confessional. “I remembered our interactions as I remembered a dream, with doubt, and if I mentioned that night to him, I expected him to look at me questioningly. I didn’t trust that my subconscious hadn’t invented the whole thing.”
So Willa and Patrick became each other’s half-remembered suns and moons — stealing secrets from their imprinted shadows even though they barely knew the other, “thinking about memory as a space we dwell in.”
And so they basked in each other’s borrowed light, both compelled and disgusted by the power they had over the other, thinking about how “‘scared’ was an anagram of ‘sacred.'”
Robertson’s prose is intentionally blurry, using pronouns instead of names and lacking quotation marks so you’re never sure when Patrick’s speech begins and Willa’s ends.
Instead, Robertson challenges dualities, immortalizing Patrick and Willa through both beautifully poetic and vulgar prose.
With “Demi-Gods,” Robertson writes a new myth, rivaling Psyche and Cupid’s, Oedipus and Jocasta’s, Castor and Pollux’s and Cronus and Zeus’s. Her “demi-gods” Patrick and Willa can instill fear, turn day into night and blind you if they meet.
Disclaimer: I received a free eARC of “Demi-Gods” by Eliza Robertson from NetGalley in exchange for this honest review.