Winner of the 2018 Quebec Writers' Federation Award for the Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction
Bold and provocative, Demi-Gods explores a girl's attempt to make a life of her own choosing in a world dominated by men, in this story of love, lust, and the spaces in between.
It is 1950, and Willa's mother has a new beau. The arrival of his blue-eyed, sun-kissed sons at Willa's summer home signals the end of her safe childhood. As her entrancing older sister Joan pairs off with Kenneth, nine-year-old Willa is drawn to his strange and solitary younger brother, Patrick.
Left to their own devices, Willa is swept up in Patrick's wicked games. As they grow up, their encounters become increasingly charged with sexuality and degradation. But when Willa finally tries to reverse the trajectory of their relationship, an act of desperation has devastating results.
Unfolding between the wild freedoms of British Columbia and the glittering beaches of California, Demi-Gods explores a girl's attempt to forge a path of her own choosing in a world where female independence is suspect. Sensitive, playful, and entirely original, Eliza Robertson is one of the most exciting new voices in contemporary literature.
About the author
Eliza Robertson was born in Vancouver and grew up on Vancouver Island. She studied creative writing and political science at the University of Victoria, then pursued her M.A. in prose fiction at the University of East Anglia, where she received a Man Booker Scholarship and the Curtis Brown Prize for best writer. In Canada, she has won three national fiction contests. Most recently, she was a finalist for the 2013 CBC Short Story Prize, won the 2013 Commonwealth Regional Prize for her piece “We Walked on Water,” and was shortlisted for the 2013 Journey Prize. She lives in Victoria.
- Winner, The Quebec Writers' Federation Literary Award - Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction
Excerpt: Demi-Gods (by (author) Eliza Robertson)
Patrick didn’t tell me to follow him, but I understood he wanted me to. He slid through the French doors, away from their bick- ering, and meandered down the lawn, onto the dirt path that wound to the beach. Here, he dangled a whip of kelp at his side and slashed empty crab shells from the rock. I imagined the beach stones were lava and leapt from log to log to avoid melt- ing my shins. I was nine years old, he was eleven. He didn’t speak as we walked. By now Mom and Eugene would be hurl- ing insults at each other, which I hated more than when they petted each other’s hands. So I trailed after him, springing between logs, kneeling for balance if I landed an unsteady one, tiptoeing along the lip of a trunk that had been hollowed by lightning. Long ago, a blue rowboat had been dumped on the beach grass beside the fort, the turf grown over it now, as if trying to reclaim the wood. Instead of climbing inside the fort, Patrick stopped at the boat and dropped his pack.
Help me lift this, he said.
Rust etched over the gunwale like dry blood; prongs of grass wedged through a gap in the bottom planks.
Why do you want it?
He crouched and dug two hands under the stern of the boat. —Get the other side, he said.
I was scared to find what lived under there. Joan said there were water snakes and I imagined cords of them nesting under the hull. I didn’t mind snakes if I couldn’t see them, but worried they would shoot from the grass up my ankles.
It’s not going to float, if that’s what you’re thinking.
He didn’t reply. Finally I leaned forward and slid the smallest segments of my fingers under the gunwale. We pried the boat from the grass that had clamped around it. If I looked down, I would panic and fling my side of the boat, even if I saw only shadow or beach crabs, so I trained my eyes on Patrick opposite me, who lifted his end of the boat higher than I could. Together, we flipped it onto the keel. No snakes shook from the grass, but in a pocket of rubbery beach weed sat a clutch of two eggs. Each was no larger than the butt of my palm, the shells clay green, murmured with black splashes.
Patrick swooped down and pinched one between his finger and thumb. —You think it’s hot enough to fry eggs on the rock?
Put that back. Why?
It’s a baby.
He opened his mouth and lay the egg on his tongue, kissed his lips around it. After a moment, he parted his teeth and pushed the wet egg back into his palm.
What will you do for me?
He closed his fist around the egg and started to squeeze.
I worried the scent of his sweat and saliva would scare the mother. The thought of these two green eggs abandoned under the rowboat with no mother’s belly to warm them welled tears in my eyes. I didn’t want him to see.
What will you do?
Just put them down.
He smiled. In a smooth motion, he tucked the egg back in the nest, wiped his hand on his jeans and nipped a crushed cigarette from his pocket. He massaged the paper to reshape it and struck a match on the rock.
Come on, he said, pulling on the cigarette with his girlish lip. —Let’s go for a sail.
He dragged the grass-chewed, wind-rattled boat to the water. He pushed the bow into the seafoam. Liquid sucked through the gap in the bottom planks and the hull filled an inch.
You don’t mind getting a little wet, do you? he asked and held the stern steady for me to climb in.
You scared, then?
I trained my eyes on him to test if he was serious. He wore a white T-shirt stuffed into blue jeans, which he had rolled around his knees. With the cigarette hanging from his mouth, he looked like a hobo from the desert who hunted rattle- snakes and skinned them for boots. I stepped carefully into the boat and sat in the nearest wood seat. The hull sank deeper. He climbed in and pushed the boat from the shore with his forearms, perching opposite me on the middle bench. The hull filled with more water, but we managed to float, as if the salt pushed us up and down at the same time. The sea filled my socks, the cold unravelling a shock up my back. I resolved to visit the eggs the next day for signs of the mother. I’d sit on them myself if I had to.
Patrick grabbed the two chipped paddles that hung from the oarlocks. —What are you waiting for? You have to bail.
He started to row. I folded my fingers together and scooped water with my hands.
My dad owns a boat, he said. Twenty times bigger than this one.
He lets me sail it on my own. You’re fibbing.
What do you know?
Our vessel drifted, half-submerged, from the shore. We bobbed past the harbour light, toward the more open stretch of ocean that linked the islands. It was a warm day, the bay sluggish around us—vitamin green, unbroken by waves. I swam here often; from the harbour light I could still front-stroke to shore. After ten minutes, Patrick’s rowing started to flag. No matter how vigorously he heaved the oars, or I pushed out water, we continued to droop into the sea. Finally, he steered us to a rocky point where the island tongued underwater and the boat could rest in its own shallow pool. I felt embarrassed for him. I unbuckled my Mary Janes and tipped out the water. If the leather dried with salt streaks, Eugene would take one of the shoes and bend me over his knee and whack my bum.
When I looked up, Patrick was watching me with a hooked smile. His jeans were drenched and the water had splashed up his shirt, the cotton slick to his stomach, an air bubble at his navel.
What? I said.
His stare flickered to the space beside me. I turned to find a ruddy, fifteen-inch jellyfish bumping over the sunken lip of the boat. I gasped and pressed myself to the opposite side. I heard a soft plashing and imagined the jelly wobbling at my waist, but I couldn’t bring myself to look, and it might have been water shushing over the rocks. After a moment, I worried Patrick had stopped talking to stall me, the creature inching closer without my notice. I glanced down. At the same instant, the tide nudged the jelly over the lip of the boat. Its mass wafted toward my lap.The bell sprawled the water like an open wound, the net of stingers grazing my thighs. I could feel the weight of them above my trousers. A low howl built in my throat, but I was too scared to cry in case the movement drew it closer.Then I knew the jelly didn’t sting my legs through the pedal pushers, because I could feel it now—my right forearm where the ten- tacles seared my wrist. That’s when I leapt from the water and clambered the rocks to the bluff ten feet above, where I buckled and pressed my burning arm into the dry grass. The creature still crashed into my mind, and I imagined it enfolding me, tangling my arms in its lattice. Patrick climbed the bluff a few minutes later with a handful of wet sea lettuce. He took my wrist and pressed the weeds onto the sting, which had started to blister. The pressure of his hand and the cool plants relieved the burn for a moment, but soon it started all over.
You know what kind of jelly that was?
I ignored him, clutching his hand tighter to ease the pain and my shaking, the jagged breath in my chest.
Lion’s mane, he said. The biggest species of jellyfish in the world. One specimen measured a hundred and thirty feet. Longer than a blue whale.
I tried not to listen to him and focused on my breath, my heartbeat, how far we had floated, the direction of the house. Behind us, a branch cracked in the wood. We both turned. Something scampered into the undergrowth—a rabbit or deer, probably. I continued to scan the trees behind us. After a moment, he spoke again.
I’ll pee on it if you want.
I snatched my arm from his grip. —Oh scram. I’ve had enough of your ideas.
Jellyfish tentacles have thousands of sting cells called nematocysts. To deactivate them on the skin it’s best to apply vinegar. Urine’s second best.
This is your fault. Let’s go back. How long will that take?
I sighed. My irritation with him was increasing the pain. A string of bumps had flushed up my forearm. A sob welled in my throat. I bent over and let the warm tears spill on my wrist to soothe the burn.
Why don’t you pee on it, then? he said. It won’t work.
It’s better than nothing. I won’t look.
He rotated on the rock and squatted in the opposite direc- tion, out to sea. I realized I did have to pee, that I hadn’t gone since that morning. I sniffed and wiped my eyes with my good wrist. Patrick whistled. A pretty tune I couldn’t place, maybe a hymn. It comforted me—our silence, his whistling, the waves turning below. The sting hurt, but no more than the time I disturbed a wasp nest and got nipped three times on the thigh. Patrick continued to survey the sea. I fingered the button on my pedal pushers, then pressed it through the hole and pulled my pants around my knees. I pushed my underwear out of the way and released a stream of urine onto my forearm. It burned more, but that felt okay—like it sealed the sharper, isolated burns. A hot trickle dropped down the rock toward Patrick. I could tell we were both listening. Finally, I pulled up my pants. The damp spread in the crotch of my underwear, beads of it smearing onto my thighs. I felt proud. As if I had passed his test.
I think we’re that way. He pointed left, where the bluff receded into dark needling trees.
He did not congratulate me as we walked, or acknowledge how brave I was. He stopped whistling and hiked a few paces ahead on the rock.
One of The Globe and Mail's 100 Best Books of 2017
One of Now Magazine's 10 Books to Read This Summer
One of The National Post's Best Books of 2017
One of The Chicago Reader's Books We Can't Wait to Read in 2018
“The book is of a piece with André Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name and other soft-core explorations of how we mess one another up, and realize it only later.…Rarely have blurred lines, in weird sex or otherwise, been explored with such grace.” ―The New York Times
“Demi-Gods reminded me favorably of novels like Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home and Emma Cline’s The Girls, where a hazy, swollen summer ambience is sliced through by the razor-wire of menace and illicit arousal. Ms. Robertson’s writing is compact, barbed and often startling…Her uncanny recall, disturbing all the senses and making the past seem more vivid than the present, makes this one of the most memorable first novels I’ve read in 2018.” ―Wall Street Journal
“Unsettling and compulsive, Demi-Gods is a fearless novel and Eliza Robertson a daring new novelist.” —John Boyne, author of The Heart’s Invisible Furies
"Atmospheric and lushly detailed, Demi-Gods captures the wonder and menace of adolescence in ways both unsettling and profound.” —Christina Baker Kline, bestselling author of A Piece of the World
"The heat ripples into sentences dripping with delicious detail… Its nod to the classics makes Demi-Gods comparable to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. As does the feeling of a new and important author arriving." —Financial Times
"Dark and kinky with disturbingly good prose… Elena Ferrante-esque." —Julianne Pachico, author of The Lucky Ones
"In her poetic, essential debut novel, Eliza Robertson aims an unflinching gaze at the temptation and consequences of weaponized desire. Demi-Gods is a brutally beautiful coming-of-age story that sings with language as lovely, wild, and full of ominous longing as the young woman at its center." —Robin Wasserman, author of Girls on Fire
“A poetic debut novel . . . she juxtaposes grime and glory . . . to beautifully disturbing effect.” —The Globe and Mail
“Demi-Gods is a resolutely sure-footed piece of writing, moving with fleetness and agility over its chosen terrain. It’s the work of a writer who knows how to pace herself – when to sprint and when to hang back." —Quill & Quire
"Episodic and spare, it jangles with deceptive pace. . . . Demi-Gods is an uncomfortable, propulsive and deeply enjoyable read. It has an air of coastal gothic to it, a sense of chaos barely restrained amid all the calm." —National Post
"Demi-Gods is an entertaining read that leaves one feeling a tad sickly, yet completely satisfied." —Vancouver Sun
“A dark story of sexually charged friendship in the 1950s, it’s as daring as it is exciting.” —Fashion
“Demi-Gods traces the border between fear and attraction. The novel throbs with ominous details—a foot on the small of a back, a jellyfish’s tendrils, a broken doll house. As Willa’s relationship to Patrick develops so does our sense of dread. Yet, it is also a book riddled with beauty—the way sunlight can transform a body, the depth of a moth’s wings, the way a girl’s body can beat to the same rhythm as the sea. Willa’s beauty is described as sly. The novel too, is sly. It will sneak under your skin.” —Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, author of Harmless Like You
“Demi-Gods combines the unnerving, naked female candour of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend with a darkened menace worthy of German director Michael Haneke. Eliza Robertson imbues each page with an almost perverse eroticism – all actions and even inanimate objects and innocent vegetation are charged with sexual tension. In the younger brother, Patrick, she has created one of the most convincing antagonists in recent memory – my gut churned each time he appeared on the scene.” —Zsuzsi Gartner, author of Better Living Through Plastic Explosives
"There are easy ways to describe Demi-Gods--poetic, observant, tragic, gut-churning--but above all else Robertson's debut novel demonstrates masterful restraint, a complete and uncompromising commitment to dramatic *pull*. Everything is just so potent, so charged: the sexuality, the emotions, the violence. And like the deviant relationship at the novel's centre, there is something inescapable about Demi-Gods, so that by the end you feel as though you've been inches underwater, unable to surface, but desperate to." —D.W. Wilson, author of Ballistics
“Demi-Gods is a resolutely sure-footed piece of writing, moving with fleetness and agility over its chosen terrain. It’s the work of a writer who knows how to pace herself – when to sprint and when to hang back. Robertson – whose 2014 story collection, Wallflowers, was extravagantly praised by critics – is a landscape artist with the signal ability to re-map spacious exteriors into teeming headspaces… Readers who allow themselves to get fully caught up in Robertson’s dense, disturbing prose may wonder how long it will take to free themselves from this novel’s own thrall.” —Quill & Quire (starred)
“Robertson’s deliciously enigmatic style is the perfect analogue to Willa’s absorbing yet deeply haunting journey of self-discovery.” —Publisher's Weekly
“An exquisite, unconventional story of obsession, barely repressed desires, brimming with erotic detail, chafing with innuendo, and filled with desperately complex characters--Eliza Robertson has written a stunner of a debut novel.” —Lee Henderson, author of The Road Narrows As You Go
"Demi-Gods is both languid and full of menace, a slow burn that compulsively gathers heat. Robertson explores one girl’s passivity and power, and one boy’s monstrous impulses, with shocking honesty and language that is as precise and sensuous as a poet’s. This story is frighteningly real and beautifully told." —Deborah Willis, author of The Dark and Other Love Stories
“Demi-Gods is a feat of subtlety and daring that opens with unease, builds into a dark drama, and culminates in an unforgettable scene of revenge. Robertson portrays complex relationships with breathtaking precision and compassion, revealing the human bonds that protect, falter, survive, and heal. I absolutely love this novel.” —Alison MacLeod, author of All the Beloved Ghosts
“Unsettling and compulsive, Demi-Gods is a fearless novel and Eliza Robertson a daring new novelist.” —John Boyne, author of The Heart’s Invisible Furies
“A daring page-turner to devour in one sitting.” —Express by Elizabeth Archer
“Robertson writes with compelling precision and complexity about the charged ambivalences of sexual discovery. As an award-winning short-story writer, she has a gift for sharply compressed description and minute character observation.” —The Sydney Morning Herald
“Robertson's strength lies in her detailing of the characters, and in her sparse but powerful language.” —The Telegraph
Praise for Wallflowers:
“Reading Wallflowers, Eliza Robertson’s debut story collection, is like taking a solo swim across a chilly lake. You become mesmerized by details – the silken texture of the water, the cool air on your arms as they rise and fall, the rhythm of your breath, the dark scrub of trees on the distant shore – without ever forgetting the mysteries and potential dangers that lurk beneath. In this captivating book, people down in gray water, shacks burn on stony beaches, planes crash into rivers, hummingbirds are trapped and tethered to wrists, neighborhoods flood. Grief and loss cast long shadows over these stories, which sometimes bring us to the threshold of disaster and sometimes explore its aftermath.” —New York Times Book Review
"A little bit dark. A little bit weird. Eliza Robertson is Canada's next big lit star." —Flare
"An absolutely stunning collection. Without question it announces a major talent...There are doubtless many awards in her future." —Toronto Star
“Confirms her as a significant new talent. The ordinary and everyday become imbued with a strange significance, albeit with a feather-light touch; Robertson's prose is never weighed down, even as it imparts a sense of uneasiness, anticipation. Robertson lets images vibrate with possibilities. Almost every story, individually, is sharp, illuminating.” —Independent on Sunday
“Tremulous, tender, indeed, Munro-esque.” —Maclean's
“Robertson pays careful attention to the smallest detail, the one rich with opportunity and heartbreak.” —The Scotsman
“Robertson writes with a keen command, both of language and of form, pushing both beyond the realm of comfort.” —Vancouver Sun
“Robertson is poised to become a master.” —The Globe and Mail
“Robertson’s writing is ambitious, and her imagination fearless. Weird, disturbing and oddly bewitching . . . unlike anything I’ve read before.” —The Fountain