COCKROACH by Rawi Hage (Anansi), 305 pages, $29.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN
When I pick up Rawi Hage's cockroach, the rebel in me wants to resist the raves raining down upon it - it's been short-listed for every Canadian prize that matters.
But it turns out that Hage is definitely the real deal. His hallucinatory tale of immigrant alienation in inner-city Montreal is powerful, poetic and has a solid narrative arc.
The unnamed hero, who's emigrated from Lebanon, ekes out a life, barely - he's practically starving as the story opens - by scamming, stealing and ingratiating himself to the right people when he needs to, all the while imagining himself a cockroach.
He's been sent to see a therapist after a failed suicide attempt, and his story largely emerges through his conversations with her.
When he scores a job as a busboy at a Persian restaurant, it looks like his life might change, and Hage starts filling in the backstory.
That last is a good thing, because this bug is really nasty. It takes a while to grasp what's behind his mix of whining and rage, and the first third of the book feels like just another story about an angry fucked-up young guy whom we're supposed to like just because he's the narrator.
But as his personal history unfolds, the character comes into focus, and when the story takes a twist and becomes a near-thriller, you won't be able to put it down.
The prose is tight, the haunting imagery beautiful and unsettling and the setting vividly evoked.
Even better, Hage creates fascinating characters: the welfare recipient who pretends he's a professor; Shoreh the torture survivor; Reza the musician who'll play for anyone.
But it's the cockroach who'll crawl under your skin.
Hage finds out if he takes the Giller Prize on Tuesday (November 11).