A New Novel About Discovering Identity, Boundaries, and Love
Tilley's 'Against The Wind' reminds us why we never lose what we leave behind.
Posted November 17, 2019
"Has he lost his mind? Sort of. He’s let it out of its cage to fly with the few birds he can see above the bare trees…. whoosh. Sixty-three suddenly wound all the way back to adolescence. On the verge of asking a pretty girl for a date.” —From Against The Wind by Jim Tilley
What divides the past from the present, one nation from another, one gender from another, one human being from another?
Are all boundaries invented, constructed for the convenience of the powerful, with maps drawn by money and with borderlines as changeable as currency?
Or do they emerge from natural distinctions? Are their differences defined clearly, the way the shore is established by the sea?
Having just read Jim Tilley's first novel Against The Wind, these are the questions I’m asking—and asking with a sense of personal urgency and not merely with the usual philosophic and distanced intellectualism usually brought to such topics. That’s what happens when you read a well-written book by a courageous author: You leave not with answers, but with a new way to interrogate your own life.
I first came across Tilley’s work as a poet (and he has since become a friend), and Against The Wind is informed by the same respect for and love of language that distinguishes his poetry. In the longer form offered by the novel, however, Tilley is able to engage with his readers on a different level or, to be more accurate, on a number of levels—narrative, emotional, and intellectual—simultaneously.
On one level, the novel is a well-wrought reverie about the ways in which the days of adolescence are echoed by the dusks of our later lives.
The central characters are in their 50s and 60s, but their younger selves are very much shadowing them. One of Tilley's strong female characters wonders, for example, whether her returning lover would "fall for her today if they hadn’t been sweethearts in high school and college?”
For anyone who longs to reconnect with an ex, who has attempted to reconnect with a first love, an old flame, a high school crush or, a college paramour, the question is an essential one: Would we even look at each other now if we weren’t trying to re-create what happened back then? Can you go back? Can you move forward if you are driven by gusts from a storm that now seems very far away?
But it isn’t only erotic love these earlier selves are looking to recreate: A group of boys who knew one another as they grew up in Canada—primarily in Montreal and the rural Quebecois countryside around Mount Tremblant—attempt to pick up their adventures where they left off. These characters are, the author tells us, "Grown men needing to act like boys.”
What delivers Tilley’s characters from the fate of lesser (although similar) manchild-quest plots is that they’re aware they now "wouldn’t have had enough in common to become friends if they’d first met at this point in their lives” and yet permit themselves to re-create a ritual that takes them back, in a transformative and perhaps transcendent way, "to their shared adolescence, to another universe” with "nothing around them but sand, air, and water."
There are grown-up love affairs that fail bitterly, and ones that work gloriously. There are essential conversations: Can you love two people at the same time? (“How can you be in love with both of us?” “Because I can shut off thinking about her when I’m with you.” “How can you do that?” “I compartmentalize my life. She’s in one part, and you’re in another. I don’t let the two get mixed up.”)
Tilley does indeed focus on what I’d call essential conversations throughout Against The Wind, asking us to consider whether there is a singular self or whether shifting, flexible, and self-declared identity is not, in fact, the unrecognized, unnamed, and yet the universal norm.
In a book replete with blurred categories, ideas about separation and connections, about borders and locations that divide us and bring us together, concerned metaphorical power lines as well literal ones, one of Tilley’s characters has received the most critical attention.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Tilley’s novel was celebrated immediately upon publication for its clear, uncompromising, and complex depiction of a transgender adolescent, Jules.
Born Juliette, his family learns to understand that the child they once called Juliette didn’t decide to change her identity, but instead decided to become publically and sexually the person—and the gender—he had always been. “Juliette didn’t decide she wanted to be Jules,” one of his parents explains. “He realized he was Jules, not Juliette. There was no transformation.”
Against The Wind is filled with questions, but Tilley’s novel also offers satisfying realizations and recognitions. Having encountered a gathering of psychologically rich characters learning to connect their childhoods with their adult lives, their memories with their dreams, and their fears with their hopes, the reader leaves Tilley’s pages with a renewed embrace of optimism.
We exit the novel feeling as if the wind is at our back.