Sharp and propulsive, The Damages is an engrossing novel set in motion by the disappearance of a student during an ice storm, and explores themes of memory, trauma, friendship, and identity.
What I remember best about that week in January is trying to keep track of all the lies I told.
1997: For Ros, starting university at Regis is an opportunity for reinvention—a chance to be seen as interesting, to be accepted by the in-crowd, and maybe even get a boyfriend. But when she meets her roommate, Megan, with her pleated jeans and horse-print bedding, she sees her as a social liability. Outside of their dorm room, Ros distances herself from Megan and quickly befriends the cool kids, seeking status at all costs. Just after winter break, an intense ice storm hits campus, triggering a reckless, days-long dorm party, during which Megan goes missing. Ros is blamed for the incident and abruptly dropped by her social circle, casting a shadow over the next two decades of her life.
2020: Ros’s former partner, Lukas, the father of her eleven-year-old son, is accused of a sexual assault. The accusation brings new details of an old story to light, forcing Ros to revisit a dark moment from her past. Ros must take a hard look not only at the father of her child, but also at her own mistakes, her own trauma, and at the supposed liberal period she grew up in.
The Damages is a page-turning, thought-provoking novel about the lies we tell other people and the lies we tell ourselves.
About the author
Genevieve Scott is a graduate of the University of British Columbia’s Creative Writing MFA. Her short fiction has been published in literary journals in Canada and the United Kingdom, including the New Quarterly, the White Wall Review, and the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology, among others. Her short films have screened at eleven film festivals throughout the US, Canada, England, and Ireland. Genevieve grew up in Toronto and currently lives in Southern California, although she will be returning to Toronto in the spring of 2018. She is a creative writing mentor to at-risk teen girls in Los Angeles with the nonprofit WriteGirl. Catch My Drift is her debut novel.
Excerpt: The Damages (by (author) Genevieve Scott)
What I remember best about that week in January is trying to keep track of all the lies I told. Still, they want to hear from me.
Elaine Ng called it a conversation. We could meet whenever it suited me. Nothing to bring along, just my memory.
I haven't met Elaine Ng, but I have studied her photo on the Burton Jafari LLP website. She is attractive, a year younger than me, if I've calculated her age correctly from LinkedIn. Two years ago, a Canadian legal magazine named her a "Top 40 under 40." I'm sure her personal and professional choices have been, on balance, more impressive than mine, which is the main way I size up women now. At one time, the time period she wants to discuss, I considered only prettiness, thinness, and some ever-evolving coolness factor, indexed from aesthetic choices like cut of jeans and hairstyle (though even by this standard, Ms. Ng scores high). Ms. Ng is probably good at what she does, but I don't understand this whole system, her system, that puts so much stock in the reliability of memories.
Back when I lived with Lukas, he said he didn't need to remember things like our dry cleaner's name or our friends' food sensitives because my memory was a spiderweb, nabbing every detail. At dinner parties, I was proud to supply whatever got lost at the tip of a storyteller's tongue—the name of a child actor, the year of the Albertville Olympics, the author of a book I'd never read. Early in our relationship, Lukas brought me to lunch with his agent, and years later, he marvelled at what I could still recall about the evening: the Weimaraner she waved at through the window, her tendency to repeat the phrase "Let's face it," the fleck of taramasalata on the sleeve of her white caftan. I liked being the person who could turn up scraps like these—it was a party trick. It was also, I see now, a distraction. A way to seem clever and observant while avoiding anything of substance. I don't remember much of what the agent said about Lukas's book that night or why they stopped working together several months later. My memory may nab more details than most, but these details don't form a complete picture; more often, they obscure what's there.
I could describe to Ms. Ng, for instance, the shirt Megan wore to the bar on the night she went missing. It was borrowed from Sue, white with a ruffle over the chest. I once read a teen magazine article on swimwear that described flattering bathing suits for various body types: "Not much on top? Reach for a ruffle!" Megan tried it on at the full-length mirror on Sue's closet door. From the way she bit her lip, I could tell that she liked how it looked. But I don't think this is the sort of detail Ms. Ng is seeking.
I searched Regis University online and found a news clip from this past March, a segment on students who were refusing to social distance despite the covidoutbreak in the town of Creighton, Ontario. It was the first time I'd seen the campus in over two decades. The kids were crowded in front of a reporter's microphone, jackets open, glittery hats jauntily askew, green beer sloshing in frosted glass mugs. One pretty girl narrowed her eyes at the camera. "Are we not allowed to enjoy our lives?"
They sounded so dumb. Were we that dumb?
If that week in January had happened even a decade later than it did, this conversation would be easier. I would have photographs, videos, all kinds of documentation. There would be hashtags: #Pray4Creighton, #CreightonStrong. But we didn't have cellphones or social media in 1998. I didn't take pictures, hardly used email. Ballpark is the best I can do for Ms. Ng, if I talk to her at all.
The few things that I'm certain of are the things that everybody knows. Megan Main, my roommate, went missing from Alice Cole Hall on January 9, 1998. Though there were 250 people sleeping in a dorm built for 115 that night, no one saw her leave. It was in the middle of the biggest ice storm in Creighton's history.
On the first night, the storm was magical. Our campus was like the atrium of a shopping mall at Christmas: trees dripping with tinsel-fine icicles, rime-crusted windows, sparkles of moisture under the streetlamps. But freezing rain fell for days. Thick layers of ice accumulated on trees, windshields, hydro poles and wires. People lost their homes, their farms; livestock froze to death. Nearly all of Creighton's forty thousand households were blacked out.
As students in residence, we were ignorant of the devastation; we didn't want the chaos to end. An ice storm was a dream come true for us—classes were cancelled, there was nowhere we had to be, no responsibilities. And we weren't afraid of falling on ice. If anyone was going to die, it would be from drinking. A different sort of blackout.
Alice Cole Hall, the dorm where I lived, was the centre of the party because we never lost power. People said we had power because we shared a generator with Creighton General Hospital. Maybe that's right, I don't really know. I didn't understand anything about power then.
It is practical to put borders around this story, fuzzy as they are. So let's say that the story begins the day we returned to campus from the Christmas holidays: Sunday, January 4, 1998. My dad drove me to school in the Jaguar he'd bought himself as a retirement gift on Boxing Day. I spent most of the drive pretending to be asleep, not because I didn't like my dad, but because I didn't really know how to sustain a conversation with him for three hours. We didn't have a lot of common interests. He was seventy-one, which was older than some of my friends' grandparents. Growing up, he never knew the names of my friends or teachers. He wouldn't, for instance, have known the name Megan Main, even though she was my roommate. At eighteen, I was self-doubting, self-obsessed and a follower. But my dad had his own ideas about me, ideas that made me a credit to him, and it was easier to be who he thought I was, easier for both of us. On his desk at home, he kept a single photo of me; it was taken at Swiss Chalet when I was five, and it captured everything he felt he needed to know. Under the haze of a yellow-and-brown hanging lamp, I'm contemplating a structure built from creamer cups, sweetener packs and condiment bottles, my chin resting on my hand. Thoughtful, focused, independent. I was quiet around him because I wasn't prepared to challenge that image. My dad was old, impatient with people, and had an unshakable sense of how things should be. I often worried that I'd say or do something stupid and reveal too much of myself.
I was eager to return to school that January. At that point, Regis was home. In August, my parents and I had moved back to Toronto after a five-year stint in L.A., but the new condo felt to me like their space, not mine. I was a college student now, on my own, on to the next thing. I had spent most of the Christmas holidays watching TV while my mother suggested ways to brighten up my north-facing bedroom. I said, "Do whatever you like. I don't really live here." This was also an excuse not to lift a finger.
My dad was a Regis alumnus, and he was pleased to see that I'd taken to the school. He'd whistled along to the radio for most of the ride there, but once we arrived, I didn't want him to linger because I didn't want anyone to see his Jag. Although family wealth was common at Regis, it was best to downplay it. When people knew you had a lot of money, you got judged more harshly. There was a girl on my floor whose highly recognizable surname linked her to a major Canadian grocery store chain. Behind her back, her presumed wealth was used to minimize her generosity ("I'd give you a ride, too, if I had Daddy's Saab") and to barb any criticisms ("You'd think she could afford to wax her moustache"). At Regis, being broke was de rigueur. It had been the opposite in L.A., where everyone exaggerated their status whenever they could get away with it. At Regis, if the subject came up, which it didn't very often, I told people my dad was an artist. It wasn't totally untrue, he was an architect. A fairly famous one.
Before I pulled open the heavy wooden doors to Alice Cole Hall, Dad whistled at me from the sidewalk. I turned to face him, and he grinned in the same proud but embarrassing way he had when he pointed out that I was wearing mascara at eighth grade graduation. "Do you own this place or what?"
I forced a smile, looked around, hoped to God no one was watching us.
"Let me get a picture," he said. "For your mom."
Among my dad's various false impressions was the idea that my mother and I were close. This assumption that all daughters are tightly bonded to their mothers must have come from his first marriage: my half sister, Val, was close to her mother. But my mom and I were not friends. Unlike my father, she didn't view me with rose-coloured glasses—quite the opposite. Nothing impressed her. I suppose the upside of this was that it was also hard to disappoint her. She knew a few more of the basic bullet points of my life than my dad did—my roommate's name, for instance—but she didn't know anything about how we got along. She never asked.
I stood stiffly in the cold, duffle bag slung in front of me, while my dad fumbled with the camera.
This wasn't the last time I saw my dad, but I think it's accurate to say that this was the last time he saw me, or at least the version of me that he'd never previously had to question. The last time I was his bright, uncomplicated youngest daughter, with her best years ahead of her.
"You probably noticed I like horses."
This was the first thing Megan Main said to me. The first thing anyone at Regis ever said to me.
The week before I started at Regis in September, I got my dorm assignment in the mail and was devastated. Since receiving my acceptance in June, I had daydreamed about living in the Ex—James Exeter Hall, the huge coed tower I'd seen in the housing brochure—next to a long-haired, guitar-playing film major with a name like Hugo. I'd rehearsed the conversation that Hugo and I would be forced to have when, after several months of tension-filled, late-night talks about our childhoods and favourite movies, we admitted our feelings for each other and had to decide whether sex would ruin our friendship. It was very fashionable then to have guys as best friends and to worry, or fake worry, about ruining the friendship. Getting assigned to Alice Cole Hall, which was girls only and the least cool dorm at Regis, was a pretty major blow to my fantasies.
Long before I arrived, people had been shortening Alice Cole Hall to AlCo Hall, which would be an obvious joke for a normal dorm, but AlCo Hall was for girls who wore French braids for fun and volunteered at hospitals. It was the only dorm with "dry" floors, which made it considerably more boring than the other two women's dorms, all of which sat in a row on the same cul-de-sac at the edge of campus.
When I moved in, my dorm room had two cut-out construction paper hearts on the door with a cupid in between. One heart said Megan Main, Woodstock, NB; the other said Rosie Fisher, L.A., Calif. The idea that someone on this floor thought I'd shorten my name to "Rosie," like some '50s girl in a poodle skirt, was a good summation of the problem.
Megan was the first to move into our room. She wasn't there when I arrived, but her bed was already made up with a dust ruffle and a horse-print duvet set. On her desk, there were two framed pictures: one of her with her parents at graduation and one of a guy in a backward ball cap posing in front of a Grand Am with his arms outstretched. Above her desk was a poster for the Penfield High School production of Anything Goes. I saw that horse decor, the cheesy boyfriend, the poster, and whatever hope I still had for my cool university life began to fade. Back then, I saw my peers in only two columns: "cool" or "loser." Megan's things confirmed that she was a loser. And I was pissed. There are confident, charismatic types who are considered cool no matter where they are or who they're with, but I was not one of them. For average people like me, coolness is contingent. If you're saddled with too much baggage, like a dork roommate in a dork dorm, coolness can slip completely out of reach.
Regis University was about a hundred years old, small, and elite. The campus spanned several blocks of scattered turn-of-the-century limestone structures, undifferentiated midcentury expansion buildings, and muddy playing fields. It was a hard school to get into, and the admissions team valorized the "well-rounded": preppy, high-spirited, class president types. Leafing through my dad's issues of Alumni Quarterly—chock-full of kids in fleece vests and canvas backpacks—I was heady with the idea of being a big fish in a small pond. The kids in the photos were nothing like me, but they weren't better than me, either. There was a chance that I might impress them. At my high school in West Hollywood, where beautiful kids were literally creating youth culture on a weekly basis, it was impossible for me to impress anyone. I was background, plain rice. But at a provincial place like Regis, it seemed to me that I might convince people otherwise. Regis was a shining second chance; it was my first-choice school.
Praise for The Damages:
“A thought-provoking examination of truth, trauma, and memory, briskly and attentively presenting readers with a vivid portrait of one woman’s complicated experiences. A compelling character study that tackles intriguing moral questions.” —Kirkus Reviews
“If you’re looking for a book that will generate a big discussion with your book club, then look no further than The Damages by Genevieve Scott. Scott did a fantastic job at capturing the 90’s and the ice storm…I…felt transported back to those days. I also loved the way she showcases the narcissism of youth and that need to find your place…. This is a propelling and thought provoking book that you just can’t put down.” —The Suburban
“A narrator you won’t be able to get out of your head this summer…. A first and ongoing pleasure of The Damages is the narrating voice of Ros Fisher. In it, there’s candour, a biting sharpness and a bristling impatience with decorum. The opening line—'What I remember best about that week in January is trying to keep track of all the lies I told'—establishes both Ros’s surgical tone and her seeming assuredness in the present day...Ros...as the narrator of a novel she’s a keeper. A testament to Genevieve Scott’s sure hand as a writer, Ros sells the story…. Ros’s voice never falters and the sophomore novel of Scott (Catch My Drift), a Southern Californian who grew up in Toronto, entices, whether she confides moral failings or describes baking a dessert.”
“In the 1990s, women were going to university and joining the workforce in record numbers. Why, then, do many of us have conflicted feelings when looking back? This is one of the first novels I've read that does a brilliant job of unpacking the duplicity and dishonesty of the era. An intelligent and intense read about how power structures are passed on—The Damages held me, riveted, in a tight, icy grip.”
—Claire Cameron, author of The Bear and The Last Neanderthal
“The Damages is a probing, courageous work—a dance along the tightropes of memory, justice and love. It explodes the myth of the innocent bystander and ultimately celebrates the lifelong moral challenge of learning who you really are.”
—Sarah Henstra, author of The Red Word, winner of the Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction
“The Damages is an eerily sharp depiction of being self-conscious, self-obsessed, and eighteen in the late nineties, and just how painful it can be to face the past and question why one makes the choices they do when they're young. Packed with insecurity, embarrassment, jealousy, and shame, each page made me anxious in the best possible way. Heart pounding, I couldn't stop reading!” —Cedar Bowers, Scotiabank Giller Prize-longlisted author of Astra
“There is a skillful irony in a character so courageously honest about her lies. Genevieve Scott offers a view inside of a complicated woman from young adulthood to middle age, in refreshing and deceptively clean prose. The Damages takes a critical look at truth and perspective in a (post-) #MeToo era, calling into question the ways our personal truths are shaped by our pasts.” —Fawn Parker, Scotiabank Giller Prize-longlisted author of What We Both Know
“The Damages led me into a maze with a thread—and then just never let me go. This story builds with thrilling intensity through moral knots and human dilemmas, led by a brilliantly complex protagonist as she navigates her way through betrayal, guilt and culpability.”
—Charlotte Gill, author of Almost Brown
“The Damages is the most honest novel I’ve read in a long time. A propulsive story about the complexities of trust, the cruelties in relationships, and the space between meaning well and doing good. Genevieve Scott is a fresh, brilliant voice in fiction.”
—Leah Mol, author of Sharp Edges
“Genevieve Scott is a sophisticated writer, and The Damages is a sharp, multi-layered story about truth, lies, history and memory. I stayed up late to finish it! I was not disappointed: this is a complex and satisfying novel.”
—Sarah Selecky, author of Radiant Shimmering Light
“As with the best books inspired by #MeToo, [Scott] doesn’t come to neat conclusions, but instead engages with the mess of it all, teasing out the multitudinous threads, asking questions instead of claiming to have all the answers. A terrific read.” Kerry Clare, author of Asking for a Friend