Just because St. Albert author Jennifer Quist’s new book takes place in a courtroom doesn’t mean that she’s about to become Canada’s answer to John Grisham.
“That’s not what I was after. I’m more interested in relationships between people,” she said, referring to The Apocalypse of Morgan Turner.
It’s not a surprise to hear this affirmation. Her last book, Sistering, was a dark comedy about family bonds through births, deaths, marriages, and everything in-between as seen through the eyes of five female siblings. Even her first title, Love Letters of the Angels of Death, which held an unexpected family death as its centrepiece, still kept relationships at its heart as a young couple deal with the rest of the extended family as everybody reacts differently.
Apocalypse seems to hearken back to that beginning while it veers through the legal system. Here, the author dives right into the messy business of mental illness and how it can keep a perpetrator from criminal responsibility. In this Edmonton-based book, the Turners are not what you would call a close family. That dynamic makes things especially tough when they all must deal with tragedy. Morgan’s sister was in a bad relationship before she is violently murdered by her boyfriend. He claims insanity, leading to the quagmire of legal and medical wrangling that must collectively determine where the truth lies.
The Turners, in turn, deal with the fallout in their own individual ways. For her part, Morgan relies on her immigrant co-workers, a schizophrenic, and a Mormon Samaritan to help her through this very intense and troubled time of her life. Despite the seriousness of the work, she describes it as a motley crew in a comic kind of whodunit, coupled with all of the psychological and emotional explorations that one would expect from something so horrific.
The experience is foreign to Quist but the empathy factor is high for its influence here. It’s inspired by a real life true crime that she watched on the news and became so interested in and affected by it that she even attended the court proceedings. In writing the story, she wanted to make sure that there was a high level of sensitivity to the characters and the content.
“Every time there’s a gun massacre, there’s always, ‘he’s just mentally ill … this isn’t about guns, it’s about mental illness.’ It’s a really dangerous line of thinking for mentally ill people who are not inclined to violence at all even though they are profoundly ill and disconnected with reality. It still doesn’t end up in a massacre most of the time. I didn’t do this intentionally to address this. It wasn’t written as a political novel but I like the way the timing has worked out and that the character who is the one who’s mentally ill is probably the gentlest person aside from the protagonist in the novel. I’m glad it worked out that way.”
Gentle doesn’t exactly describe what the author had to endure in order to accurately depict the story, especially when it came to the scene with the judge, the jury and the lawyers on each side of the case.
“The book was just reviewed in the Montréal Review of Books and they said ‘if you’re looking for a fast-paced whodunit, this is not your book,’” Quist laughed, reflecting on how Canadians are so used to highly dramatized American law scenes in movie and TV shows.
“In Canada it just plods along and the aggression has to be so subtle but it still has to be there. It’s not like writing a polemic or something. It’s very crafty sneaking up on someone as they try to defend themselves from an aggression that they can’t really detect because it’s so subtle. I love it but it’s painful to watch in real life.”
“I think that the writing in the courtroom is some of the best technical writing that I personally have ever done. I’m quite happy with that. There’s this big, long cross-examination scene, which was difficult to write. It was killer to write but I’m very happy with how it turned out.”