Mackerel Sky, by Natalee Caple

Thomas Allen Publishers, 254 pp, $32.95, hardcover.

In a perfect world, Natalee Caple's Mackerel Sky would have already been optioned by Lynne Stopkewich, say, or David Lynch. There's such a cinematic quality to the novel, with its carefully paced plot, gradual revelation of strange and complex characters, and its building sense of menacing tension provoked by outbursts of violent action that ripple its precise poetic atmosphere like rocks hurled in a reflecting pool. Water, dreams, the colours of skies permeate Caple's landscape, peopled with characters of defiant, fractured beauty, like underwater bonsai, twisted by the currents of life.

The novel opens with Guy, 36, returning from Boston to the small rural town of Ravel, Quebec, after 20 years to see the daughter he never knew, Isabelle, and her mother, 47-year-old Martine, who more than two decades before had chosen Guy to be the unwitting father of her child. Guy and Martine had grown up together, their mothers having been close after both were deserted by abusive gangster husbands. These early forces of cruelty, loss, and defensive love eventually led a 16-year-old Guy to escape and a manic-depressive Martine to choose the love of only her mother and daughter but sex with any man she desired, becoming locally known for her irresistibly seductive free spirit and unintentionally dangerous passion.

Guy's return, welcomed by Isabelle, threatens Martine's new lover, 22-year-old Harry, and the life the three have built as basement counterfeiters. When events thwart their upcoming sale of bills to two shadowy elderly men, hit-men lovers the mothers knew from the mob, the novel accelerates toward a tragic climax more poignant for the patient way we've come to learn, through Guy, to know and love them in all their imperfection.

Transcending the mechanics of psychological suspense, Caple also explores the theme of constructed meaning, offering ideological rationales for her characters' livelihood, as when Isabelle tells Guy that "Mom always says that you have to destroy the economy, that you can't participate in the economy as if it's money that makes people equal. It's money that makes people unequal." Money may divide, true, but it's Caple's insightful, distinctive vision that sets this work apart, lingering long after the last reel.