We all have stayed at the Nap-Away. For a night or a week or a longer time, at some point and for some reason, we all have found refuge in a small motel on the edge of a city. The facade is nondescript except for one or two curious features. The same might be said of the staff. Because it’s the residents who, for the length of their stay, define the motel and create its story.
The Nap-Away in Nadja Lubiw-Hazard’s debut novel (Palimpsest, 2019) is somewhere in Scarborough. Its walls are yellow, the roof grey. Behind the Nap-Away is a huge oak tree and butterflies. In front is an open space where pigeons alight. And for the length of Lubiw-Hazard’s beautiful tale, the Nap-Away is home to three wildly different, struggling characters.
In Room 5 is Tiffany. She is taking a break from kindergarten; her school won’t let her back until the lice is gone from her hair. But her mother, Shelley, says only, “I’m too strung-out for this baby.” So Tiffany spends her days behind the motel, beside the oak tree, either avoiding or having been pushed from her room by Shelley’s boyfriends.
In Room 6 is Suleiman. He is “in exile” from his own house, just a short drive away. Tragedy of the worst kind has befallen his family and Suleiman can’t expunge his anger toward his wife or his grief for his daughter Amina: “Her journey cannot be followed any longer,” he says to himself. “She is frozen forever as a five-year-old.” So Suleiman spends his days in front of his room, feeding pizza crusts to the pigeons.
And in Room 11 is seventeen-year-old Ori—Orion when they are a boy and Orianthi when they are a girl. Lubiw-Hazard’s story begins when Ori arrives at the Nap-Away. Ori is searching for their twin brother, Carter, and has mistakenly gotten off the bus in Scarborough rather than Toronto. Ori and Carter share the same grey eyes and the same life story: moving among foster homes, sticking together, trying to make sense of the world. But now Carter has run away from his twin. He has left only a trail of cryptic notes about wolves and wild things. Ori knows something is wrong.
Tiffany, Suleiman, and Ori are absorbed in their own troubles, barely aware of each other, until Tiffany finds a litter of kittens under the oak tree. Caring for the orphaned kittens brings the three together and reshapes relationships with their own families. They begin to ask questions about what is real or imagined, here or gone, true or untrue.
Through her vivid characters, Lubiw-Hazard explores these themes of neither-and-both, greyness and shadows. The twins’ eyes are grey, as are Suleiman’s pigeons, the motel roof, and one of the kittens—The Grey One. But more than that. All three characters live an in-between. A motel is a perfect metaphor, not for transition but for learning to recognise and embrace a more permanent state of in-between.
Ori is sometimes Orion and sometimes Orianthi, yet at the beginning of the novel they have not thought deeply about this neither-and-both. “’What pronoun do you use?’” her friend Moffit asks. Ori thinks: “Takes me a sec to remember what a pronoun is,” and then answers: “I’ll find myself somewhere between the two.”
Suleiman cannot let go of his daughter, Amina, but cannot hold her either. He begins to conflate Tiffany and Amina. They are so alike. Are they two—or one? He contemplates resurrection, even kidnapping. And as he tries to help Tiffany and himself, he comes to understand that “God gives as he takes.” God is the withholder and the expander: “They are twinned together.”
Tiffany most readily accepts this in-between, perhaps because she is a child or because her mother is both loving and cruel, vital and useless. Tiffany knows Ori can be either a boy or a girl, and since Ori gives her permission to choose, Tiffany picks girl “because of the purple tips on her shaggy brown hair. It looks like grape Kool-Aid.” Tiffany also knows Amina is gone forever but she is not surprised to find her among the leaves of the magic oak tree. She hears her “jingling little laugh” and marvels at her long eyelashes. They decide to be friends.
And what about Carter, the absence that allowed Ori’s presence? Is he crazy or sane? Are the wolves he describes haunting him—or in him? Haunting us—or in us?
The Nap-Away Motel is told in the alternating voices of Ori, Suleiman, and Tiffany and the novel delves into topical issues of gender, race, mental health, addiction, and social services. But Nap-Away is not moralizing or academic. It is propelled by Lubiw-Hazard’s gift for voice and her ability to unfold a whole life in a few crisp details.
Tiffany’s voice is especially compelling; it is difficult to write from a young child’s point of view without being precious or precocious. Tiffany is naive, of course, but perceptive and brave. She wants to ask her mother about Ori, for instance, but knows not to “because questions give my mom headaches and smacky hands.” It is through Tiffany and her love for the kittens, for Amina, for the old oak tree and magic, that Suleiman and Ori are able to face the world beyond the Nap-Away. Like readers, the characters must leave the motel, reluctantly but with new insight and compassion.
Read “The Life of a Creature” by Nadja Lubiw-Hazard.