Darren Greer's Still Life With June, his excellent second novel, creeps up on you slowly and subtly, creating an atmosphere of tension and dread through fascinating characters. The main ones share a particular personality trait: they can't bear to be themselves. The story is told from the point of view of Cameron, who works at a Salvation Army residence for ex-junkies. At first the novel comes across as a series of quick and clear-eyed observations of life on the front lines. But Cameron, an aspiring author, also belongs to a writers' group, where he meets the prickly Dagnia, who, it turns out, is really Julie pretending to be a semi-famous writer.
They form an uneasy friendship when Cameron agrees to spy on Julie's brother, who lives upstairs, and their bond deepens when Cameron decides to impersonate Darrel, an ex-resident, recently dead, whose mentally challenged sister June lives in an institution. The plot peaks when Cameron, Julie and June head out to the small town where June grew up
Throughout, there are references to locations such as Big Bad Hamburgers or Big Bad Books, just to make it clear that this story could be unfolding in any North American urban centre. Big cities everywhere on this continent have big-box bookstores, fast-food franchises and the people of Still Life, including its failed artists and its lonely gay men out cruising their queer community.
Greer's characters are strikingly believable and his dilemmas disturbing - Julie's, when the real Dagnia arrives at the writers' group, June's when she claps eyes on her old house now burned to the ground, Cameron's when he meets one of Darrel's old tormenters.
A rich read.