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In Veritas coverAt the beginning of C. J. Lavigne’s debut novel, In Veritas, the main character, Verity, describes all stories as fractions: portions of a truth that words alone can’t capture. This truth about the partiality of truth, however, doesn’t stop people from trying to pass along and convey what they feel, learn, and think they understand. A core part of being human is telling stories, after all. And while Verity’s unique condition makes sharing her own story difficult, she—like the rest of humanity—still has the desire to be seen. To be understood.

In Veritas is her story: Verity’s attempt, with the help of a friend, to capture all the complexities of truth (and, by extension, of herself) that she can. Verity’s lived experience is different than most—she is a young woman with synesthesia, and she struggles to make her way in a world in which she is bombarded by the smell and taste of everything around her. Her condition, which can be overwhelming when walking the city streets of Ottawa, sets her apart, makes her take in too much while those around her are free to walk through the world blindly:

Today she is watching the sidewalk, and the cyclist who nearly mows her down swears vehemently. Verity keeps walking. She is, in fact, paying attention, but the city is a barrage around her. The sidewalk shadows melt beneath her feet. Each glass tower she passes chimes in her ears. She wavers, briefly, before a window display that tastes of iron and caterpillars; she stares at the rainbow of handbags and perfectly placed leather boots, but her attention skitters to the side and she swallows the raw scent of rotting vegetables.

Only Verity’s world is so dizzying. The cyclist—now halfway down the block, still spitting righteous anger—sees only a woman and a cracked sidewalk, downtown edifices looming glassily above on a cool morning. (p. 8)

In Veritas is also a fantastical tale, and as such Verity’s synesthesia also has fantastical elements—it gives her the ability to suss out truth, with lies looking and/or tasting like an oil slick roiling down her throat, and uncertainty or partial truths taking on infinite shades of visible grey. For much of her life she believes herself to be alone in her abilities. But then she meets Santiago, a street magician who travels with his partner Ouroboros, an amorphous entity who is sometimes a dog, sometimes a snake, and sometimes Santiago’s shadow. Santiago reveals to Verity that there are others like him, those who don’t fit into society’s rules (and by rules here, we’re talking about the laws of physics)—who have powers that some may call supernatural.

There used to be many like Santiago, but over the eons their number has dwindled and their abilities have weakened—and those who are bound by the rules (aka all of us tethered by the laws of physics) have taken up more and more space, pushing the others out to the fringes. Those like Santiago now wander aimlessly through the world, always lost and often unable to make ends meet. Verity (and us) see these people every day. Verity’s synesthesia, however, makes her “see” even more; she senses the juxtaposed truth of both worlds, sees (and smells, and tastes) the people over whom most skim their glances. This other fantastical world, Verity understands, also holds more than just people—other “magical” creatures are also struggling, such as “cats” who have six legs, and “dragons” who are often perceived as pigeons or rats:

[Verity] sits on a park bench watching a six-legged cat and wondering at the peculiar precision of its gait. The cat is stalking a pigeon, much to the chagrin of a flock of other pigeons and the displeasure of the small woman sitting on the other bench just to Verity’s left. The woman is a wisp, her hair in a neat copper-grey bun. Her every worldly possession is apparently kept in a small shopping cart. She has half a loaf of bread in her lap, and she’s tossing bits to the birds, but she pauses to throw one at the cat. “Shoo,” she admonishes. A crumb bounces off the cat’s ear and it hisses. Its tongue is forked; a tiny gout of flame escapes its teeth.

Verity tilts her head, watching the beast retreat. The pigeons that scatter before it are just pigeons; she hasn’t seen a dragon in days. (pp. 33-4)

It’s here that I should mention that those looking for fast-paced plotting will not find it in In Veritas. Lavigne’s writing is lyrical, and she paints Verity’s Ottawa as a lurid, mythical city full of hidden layers. Lavigne paints a gothic image of the city. Verity describes it as tasting like blood and rot oozing down her throat. These dark depictions of Canada’s capital that make it come alive in its own right, a sensuous, horrendous being writhing with both death and life:

The city passes in streaks around them, whipping hot and cold across Verity’s face. She has to dodge the discordant whine of a passing bus; the advertisements along its side shriek, and she can taste the condescension lodged in the number of a local dentist. A radio station’s logo slimes itself across her skin. (p. 243)

It's this sordid side, the unseen underbelly found in cities across the globe, that reminds us that—speculative elements aside—there is much in the world that we choose not to see, especially on busy city streets. This makes for a visceral reading experience, a tale in which you become slowly immersed rather than one that encourages you to flip each page quickly. Those who eschew long, detailed descriptions of streets and people and settings may flounder here, while those who enjoy soaking up Verity’s unique view of the world will have lots to chew on.

Of course, the novel’s characters are our windows into this world. Along with Santiago and Ouroboros, there’s also the healer, Colin, who, with wings sprouting out of his back, is referred to as an angel throughout the book. And then there’s Privya and Jihan, both of whom look significantly younger than their ages, both of whom have been scarred by what they’ve already had to live through.

We get to understand many of them better through flashbacks. These interludes are effective for weaving in more texture to the story, though they come with the cost of slow pacing. Given this book is more concerned with character development and the exploration of key themes, however, these vignettes add more than they detract from the story’s aim. It’s through these flashbacks, for example, that we find out how Privya has become essentially immortal and inured to the death of others, especially those not like her; how Santiago first became connected to Ouroboros; and how Verity ended up with Jacob, the only “regular” person given any attention in the story.

A recurrent theme of In Veritas is the need for these and for all people to be seen, even when terrified that the act of being truly seen might destroy them. This is a familiar feeling to anyone who thinks they don’t quite fit in, who has wished desperately to be understood by someone while being afraid at the same time that if anyone knew who you really are, you’d be rejected and subsequently destroyed. In In Veritas, this fear is manifested as literal death—it is why the tiny dragons flapping around Ottawa twist into deformed pigeons or rats if they’re noticed by the wrong type of person, and it is why those like Santiago will become mortally ill if their fantastical attributes are perceived by the majority who surround them.

Santiago and others like him thus seek refuge in spaces between walls: pockets of non-reality (from our point of view, anyway) that better fit who they are. They call these spaces the between, and they find each other (in Ottawa, at least) through flyers about a cancelled show for a band of the same name; the show is cancelled, yes, but the theater where they were supposed to perform is a refuge, a between space where those who need it can recuperate.

As we move through the interludes and Verity’s emerging understanding of Santiago’s world, we find out that a time of gathering is coming near, something that Colin and the others call the Chalice (religious allusions are strong in In Veritas): a moment when the reservoir of power that drives their abilities runs full, literally and metaphorically speaking. During this time, people’s abilities become stronger. Some like Privya want to use their increased power to kill thousands of “regular” people in order to give her people a respite from their gradual decline. Others like Colin, however, don’t want to see others die, and may even hope to open one final door that will take him and those like him to a place where they once again have enough space to thrive and simply be themselves.

It all—eventually—comes to a head. And caught in the middle is Verity—the only person stuck between the two worlds, not fully fitting in either. The ending provides closure, and while it’s a bit heavy with its Judeo-Christian undertones (brought upon mostly by the “angel,” Colin), the tale ends satisfyingly enough. More importantly, however, we also walk away from the book with a better understanding of what we choose to see and not see, and how our own stories—consciously and unconsciously filtered through our own perspectives and biases—can simultaneously tell only part of the truth while also revealing the core of who we are.


V. F. Armstrong is a writer who lives in Los Angeles with her husband Jon, daughter, and her dog. You can find out more about her work on her website——or follow her on Twitter @vfarmstrong.
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