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Book Review: 'We Made It All Up,' Margot Harrison

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Published August 10, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated August 10, 2022 at 11:35 a.m.


Margot Harrison - MATTHEW THORSEN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Matthew Thorsen ©️ Seven Days
  • Margot Harrison

Celeste Bergstein, the teenage protagonist of Margot Harrison's recently published novel We Made It All Up, has the unhappy distinction of being a new girl in school. She feels all the attendant insecurity, loneliness and uncertainty that comes with moving from a cosmopolitan environment to a rural one.

Celeste's parents are divorced, and her scientist father has relocated from Montréal to work at Montana State University Billings and has brought Celeste with him. Celeste's mother has remained in Montréal. Daughter and father live in a town near Billings with the menacing name Kray's Defile, so-called because of the forbidding mountain pass that looms over town. While Celeste's father spends much of his time at the university, studying a local bat population, Celeste plunges into junior year at the town's high school.

We Made It All Up is a hybrid mystery and young adult novel, for ages 14 and up. Separating fiction into categories such as commercial, literary, crime and YA is a convenient marketing tool for the publishing industry, but fiction's boundaries are looser and more imaginative. We Made It All Up may be categorized as YA fiction, but readers, regardless of age, will find it strikes familiar chords. Who doesn't remember how painful adolescence can be, when emotions are so close to the surface and acceptance by one's peers seems elusive?

An aspiring actor and writer, Celeste succinctly describes the relief of having left behind in Montréal the unwanted attention of an older man, as well as the challenges of relocating to another place and another school. "A fresh start. A way station. None of it is any use if you can't blend in," Harrison writes.

Celeste then befriends another junior named Vivvy Kray, a nonconformist who relishes playing the class eccentric. The high school class may not be the Algonquin Round Table, but Vivvy likes to hold court as its proverbial Dorothy Parker with her sardonic asides and observations. Vivvy gravitates toward Celeste, whom she considers cosmopolitan, particularly compared to their more insular classmates, while Celeste embraces Vivvy as a fellow outsider looking in. Vivvy and her twin brother, Bram, are descendants of the 19th-century explorer Josiah Kray, for whom Kray's Defile is named.

Harrison then introduces a complex series of events involving the death of Joss Thorssen, a popular young man in Celeste's class, who is found dead near the entrance to a labyrinthine cave system in the mountain. Was it an accident or a homicide? Who might have wanted to kill him? Was Joss straight, gay or bisexual, and did that figure into his death?

Harrison toggles between the near past and the present as Celeste, Vivvy and Bram, along with another social outcast, Seth, try to determine what happened on that cold November day. Harrison divides the action by titling chapters "Then" or "Now," along with the date, time and day of the week.

The quartet must contend with the inconvenient truth that Celeste was perhaps the last person to see Joss alive — but she has no memory of the details. Is Celeste a killer, a bystander or neither, and why can't she remember? And what does a secretive, fraternity-like group of their classmates known as the Defilers have to do with what's happened?

Folded into the narrative are the fictional stories about her new friends that Celeste writes and exchanges with Vivvy; they serve as counternarratives to what is happening in real life at home and at school. Celeste may seem quiet and self-contained on the outside — Vivvy likens her to "a house with all the lights off during an air raid" — but writing gives her license to transform her lived experience into something larger.

In her stories, Celeste feels an exhilaration, control and sense of liberation that she rarely experiences in her own life. She explores issues of romantic longing, sexual desire and shame; the dissonance of yearning for acceptance while cultivating a disdain for running with the in-crowd; and how one perceives versus how one is perceived.

Harrison has a keen ear and eye for both adolescent speech and an adolescent's preoccupation with status, an eternal anxiety magnified 10 times over by the influence of social media. No wonder the characters, but particularly Celeste and Vivvy, sometimes struggle to distinguish between what is real and what is fiction. In a sense, they have invented each other's characters to serve their own needs.

The adults figure little in the book. Readers might wish that Celeste's parents, or at least her father, had been further fleshed out. But, on the other hand, that sense of separation between adults and teens feels realistic. The two often seem light-years apart.

Harrison is also deft in her depiction of how teenagers shape-shift from one minute to the next, as well as the rawness of their emotions as they calibrate where they are in the order of things. The dialogue is sharp and, when called for, both amusing and amused. She is particularly good at portraying the intensity of female friendships, with their moments of deep understanding followed by misunderstandings and feelings of betrayal. Vivvy and Celeste are frenemies nearly as often as they are soul mates.

As the mystery of what happened to Joss deepens, Celeste, Vivvy, Bram and Seth venture into the network of caves in the mountain, looking for clues. Harrison amplifies the tension here with scenes in which Celeste escapes danger by maneuvering through dark, cramped tunnels and nearly invisible exits. Claustrophobics may find themselves hyperventilating during these taut passages.

The bouncing back and forth in time between then and now seems the least successful aspect of the novel's structure. The narrative flow becomes convoluted as we try to keep track of where we are and what is happening. Ordering the story chronologically may seem old-fashioned, particularly given how habituated film and TV audiences — and book readers — are to flashbacks and flash-forwards, but it might have had the advantage of clarity.

The book also feels about 25 pages too long. Near the end, as the action cuts from character to character, from then to now, from location to location, the denouement seems slow in coming. The tit-for-tat sallies between Celeste and Vivvy no longer seem fresh.

But when Harrison ends the novel with a long-awaited confrontation, the resolution feels right. Although it comes at a cost, Celeste has earned both a moral and a psychological victory. Freed from some of the constraints that tied her to the past, she realizes that the future is no longer something to dread.

Disclosure: Margot Harrison is the associate editor of Seven Days.

From We Made It All Up

We weave our way through calf-high grass and stinging thickets until a pile of boulders blocks our path. Behind them rises a sheer cliff pocked with fissures like an asteroid. Bram picks his way over the rocks straight toward it, and I follow. "Isn't this a dead end?'"

Even as I speak, he slithers between the boulders and disappears from the waist down. "Look closer, Celeste."

Bram rarely calls me by my name; he wants me to pay attention. The dark hole in which he stands is roughly crescent-shaped, scarcely longer than my arm or wider than my hips.

"That's not a cave," I object. It's barely a fox's den.

Bram pulls off his pack, removes two headlamps, and holds one out to me. "You're going to need this."

"Seriously?" My heart begins to pound.

Rather than answering, Bram crouches and inches headfirst into the blackness, somehow managing not to bang his lamp. As if his entire body were a key he's fitting into a lock.

"It gets bigger quickly," he says from inside—his voice hollow, his protruding feet kicking up gravel. "Look, I'll guide you every inch. We'll be there in ten minutes, and I won't leave you alone for a second. You're not claustrophobic, right?"

We Made It All Up by Margot Harrison; Little, Brown; 384 pages. $17.99.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Inventing Lives"