Buckrider Books (Wolsak and Wynn Publishers), 2019
Reviewed by Sean Desrochers
Becky Blake’s debut novel Proof I Was Here is a new take on the expat abroad story that focuses on Niki, a 20-something Torontonian who has just moved to Barcelona with her fiancé Peter. The story is divided into three parts. In the first, Peter ends the relationship soon after they arrive, and she walks out of her apartment and leaves her wallet and keys behind. She is struggling to deal with the loss of her old life by living penniless, listless and aimless, a stranger in a foreign land: “I rode the trains back and forth for hours, noticing the unloved people. They were suddenly everywhere. A thin woman in a window seat rocked herself back and forth. Quarter-sized bruises lined the inside of her arm.”
In the second part she meets Manu, a pickpocket struggling to send money home to his family. Their friendship is the first of several for Niki, under the alias Jane. Manu teaches her the art of stealing and living hard. They meet knock-off purse-sellers and street performers who are part of a group of squatters in an abandoned house —“freegans.” Niki also meets Annika there as they try to stay one step ahead of the police and try to foster a feeling of belonging somewhere.
Lastly, she meets Xavi, a graffiti artist and Catalan separatist, who shows her his life of resistance and passion and shows her how to tag. Niki uses all these experiences to look her past traumas and abandonment issues, not to mention a court date for shoplifting awaiting her in Canada.
Niki’s choices demonstrate her shattered state after her breakup, but her growth and maturity come too quickly and are unearned in passages like this one: “‘Don’t look back’—that’s what he’d always said. And it was good advice if you were running away. But I didn’t want to keep running, always moving forward through a world I didn’t quite belong in, everything slipping away behind me.”
This novel is about confronting the past, identity, and the impermanence of life and, as the title suggests, it explores legacy in a world where the only constant is change. It is a fast-paced read, which fits the uncertain first-person narrative well, but Niki/Jane is often less interesting than her fellow misfits. Blake’s writing is gritty and spares no punches in exploring privilege and its sudden loss in a moment that can alter everything we think we know about ourselves.
Blake won the CBC Short Story Prize in 2013 and the CBC Nonfiction Prize in 2017 for her pieces “The Three Times Rule,” and “Trust Exercise,” respectively. Here stories and essays have appeared in Prairie Fire, subTerrain, Taddle Creek, Room, Prism, and enRoute. She teaches Creative Writing at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Education.