Portobello £12.99 (270pp) £11.69 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

Nikolski, By Nicolas Dickner, trans Lezer Lederhendler

Spaced out and all at sea in Canada

Canada, for all its bad rep as the Switzerland of North America, is a fascinating place. It seems to rattle around in its own wilderness. Yet it has a quiet, polite subversiveness which Nicolas Dickner's first novel epitomises.

Nikolski is full of wonderful imagery and eclectic characters. Professor Saint-Laurent rummages in Montreal trashcans to prove his theory that archaeology begins with the remains of last night's supper. Noah, separated from his nomadic mother by the expanse of North America, communicates with her by endless letters sent to addresses chosen arbitarily on the map. Joyce, who believes herself descended from pirates, recycles computers to pursue her piracy by credit-card fraud in cyberspace.

Meanwhile, our unnamed narrator holds onto a little plastic globe compass, reminder of the father he never knew. It is a talisman of his rootlessness, and, indeed, of his fellow characters'. His compass points, not to true north, but to an Arctic settlement named Nikolski. Eventually, it will bring all these roamers together, just as a Three-Headed Book – an antique chimera stitched together from a study on treasure hunting, a treatise on Caribbean pirates, and part of Alexander Selkirk's memoir (the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe) – becomes an esoteric manual passed from hand to hand.

Dickner's characters are appealingly idiosyncratic. Joyce has been brought up in a tiny French Canadian village, forced to look after her voracious uncles and cousins and to gut fish – a talent which comes in handy when she escapes to Montreal and finds employment in a fishmonger's. In the same apartment block lives Noah, now pursuing his studies with eccentric Professor Saint-Laurent. In the library he meets a Venezulan student of indigenous races – the scion of a wealthy Caracas family.

These exotic biographies add a hint of magical realism. Sea serpents and whales swim through the text. Moby-Dick is an intermittent trope, although Noah declares he has neither the time nor inclination to read it. And as with Melville's magisterial work, notions of statehood and belonging thread Nikolski's narrative. But racial identity is just one key to the way in which the book's protagonists are both removed from. and part of, greater political issues.

There is a randomness to this which may become infuriating if the reader is expecting all these plots to tie up neatly. They don't. The result is an allusive, often beautifully written and entertaining novel (elegantly translated from Canadian French). Dickner's book leaves the reader with an airy impression of having dallied in an alternative universe. Perhaps that's what living in Canada is like.

Philip Hoare's 'Leviathan' is published by Fourth Estate

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Jenny Lee may have left, but Miranda Hart and the rest of the midwives deliver the goods

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all