hey nos“I believe that what sparates humanity from everything else in this world – spaghetti, binder paper, deep-sea cretures, edelweiss and Mount McKinley – is that humanity alone has the capacity at any given moment to commit all possible sins.”

Possibly in part because it has one of the most wonderful opening lines in all fiction (see above), Hey Nostradamus! is one of my favourites in the Coupland canon. It feels a little more grown up than his previous books, but still full of characters seeking meaning in their lives. In this case, we get to see the internal thoughts of four characters in four very distinct sections.

The first part of the book takes place in 1988 and is narrated by Cheryl. Cheryl is seventeen, secretly married and secretly pregnant. Her devoutly religious friends know none of this but suspect that she is sleeping with her boyfriend (or rather, husband) Jason and are quite content to let her know that they think it’s wrong. But then life takes a terrifying twist and Cheryl is killed by a fellow student in a high school massacre.

The second part of the book, and the largest, is narrated by Jason who is writing a letter to his nephews in 1999, eleven years after the death of his secret wife. Destined to forever be “that guy who never got over it”, he tells his version of events from that awful day in 1988 and explains what he’s doing with his life now, which mostly involves keeping his head down and trying not to attract any attention from people who want to know all the grisly details of his past.

The third part is narrated by Heather in 2002. She is a woman who meets Jason and finds within him a kindred spirit, and she becomes the first person he has opened up to in years. Between them they have invented a whole world populated by strange characters. But Heather is far from happy, for reasons that I don’t divulge here because you need some reason to read the book. The final and shortest chapter is written in 2003 by Jason’s tyrannical and devoutly religious father Reg, who struggles with the notion that while he’s sure he’ll be getting into Heaven, he can’t vouch for the other members of his family.

It’s a stunning book that deals with so many big issues – murder, grief, religion, suffering, familial relationships, marriage and guilt – but never once feels dense. The characters are fundamentally likeable (except possibly for Reg – it depends on your interpretation by the time you reach his pages) and they’re all lost for one reason or another, desperate for a sign that their lives have meaning, or at least that they aren’t entirely alone.

There are some macarbe and gory scenes, in particular the one where the surviving school students turn on one of the gunmen and kill him in an outrageously cartoonish way. The book was inspired partly by the events at Columbine, although the shooting takes place in a time long before that event has happened. The language and ideas presented, however, are as Couplandish (Couplandic? Couplandesque?) as ever, such as suggesting how useful it would be to have a gauge that measured how susceptible we are to different sins, just to give us a warning, and how you should never write down anything in a list that means anything to you. And one line that I adore and wholeheartedly agree with: “Forget drama and torrid sex and the clash of opposites. Give me banter any day of the week.”

To paraphrase another reviewer on the back cover of this book, it’s not a book that’s pretentious enough to offer up the answers to life, but it explains quite clearly that seeking them out is what makes us human.