Sarah L. Taggart, 224 pgs, Coach House Books, chbooks.com, $23.95
What happens when the love of your life turns out to be a figment of your imagination? Sarah L. Taggart’s Pacifique is a remarkable debut dealing with themes of love, mental illness and the ways we treat those different from us. It follows Tia, a young woman training to be a massage therapist in British Columbia. On a walk, she meets Pacifique and the two quickly become lovers. After a few days together, Tia suffers a brain injury, and when she wakes she can’t prove Pacifique actually exists. Involuntarily committed to a mental institution, she meets Andrew, a schizophrenic man, and the two hit it off.
Pacifique plays with being a psychological thriller, working in elements of a love story first for Tia and Pacifique, but then also for Tia and Andrew. They struggle to connect and build a life together, but it’s hard when society makes them feel like outcasts and medical professionals treat them as numbers, not people. Things get tense in the book’s second half when Tia and Andrew live together — secrets and accusations pile up, and one’s never sure who’s telling the truth.
What sets Pacifique apart is how Taggart writes about mental health. Never patronizing or judgmental, she writes with sympathy and insight. Andrew, for example, struggles with his inner critic and to keep his life together. But he’s never played for an antagonist, just as someone who’s going through a lot.
Taggart’s prose is brisk, building tension and quickly carrying the reader away with her characters. One gets swept up into their inner lives: the second guessing, the conflicts, the struggle to keep on an even keel, and the doctors who don’t know how to help. Indeed, one openly admits their failure, sending Tia out onto the curb with a shrug.
In all, Pacifique is a welcome read, a story that’s compelling and touching, and a rejoinder to dated novels of mental illness. It keeps readers off balance but comes together nicely. It’s a good debut and one wonders where Taggart will go from here.