There are books in my library that I have reread several times since their first publication. Among them are Timothy Findleys’s Famous Last Words and Pilgrim, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Alistair Macleod’s And Birds Call Forth The Sun and The Lost Salt Gift of Blood and Carol Shields’ Unless. But until Michelle Butler Hallett’s Constant Nobody, I have never reread the same book within a month. It was even better the second time around.
Constant Nobody transports the reader to Moscow, Russia, in 1937. It is an immersive sensory experience. There were moments when it felt like I was in the front row of an intimate theatrical performance. I’d catch a whiff of perfume, feel my heart race as characters were awakened by knocks on doors, shiver when the shower water in a Moscow apartment switched from lukewarm to ice-cold, or breathe a sigh of relief after an injection of morphine dulled intractable pain.
Constant Nobody is a love story caught up in the espionage intrigue of Moscow, 1937. And as I write that sentence, I fear it trivializes Constant Nobody to historical romantic fiction which it most certainly is not. However, it is historical fiction that deftly depicts another time and place by attention to detail. And Constant Nobody is a love story that captures the depth of feeling between men, physician and patient, a man and a woman. But Constant Nobody is also an exploration of humanity. Throughout this novel, there’s an underlying question: How does one navigate a life that seems destined by chance? The answer might be “by free will and twice as much by compulsion.”
Constant Nobody, like Butler Hallett’s earlier novel This Marlowe left me in respectful awe of this formidable Canadian author.