Back in the Land of the Living by Eva Crocker

Back in the Land of the Living By Eva Crocker
Reviewed by Sharon Bala

There’s a moment early in Eva Crocker’s Back in the Land of the Living when the protagonist, Marcy Pike, riding shotgun with a new paramour, tires of her ice cream and blithely tosses the cone out the window. Marcy smirks when her date expresses surprise (“What if someone was behind me?”). It’s the first hint that Crocker’s protagonist isn’t quite good and is, in fact, a lot more interesting than a straightforward hero.

Marcy is a Newfoundlander in exile who lands in Montreal, leaving a trail of minor destruction in her wake. The novel opens at midnight, and we find her at the door of a sublet, hoping it’s not an online scam. Crocker’s publisher calls the book sexy and unforgettable, and while that’s true, a more accurate description might be unromantic and quietly dystopian.

Anxiety is the novel’s beating heart. This is a tale of struggling 20-somethings, their salad days riven with financial insecurity. At a thrift store, Marcy frets over the $60 bill. In bed with her lover, she frantically tallies the day’s expenses. She bounces through sublets before landing in a loft with two roommates and plywood walls and holds down a patchwork of ill-paid jobs: training AI to recognize hate speech, editing close captions, and sorting mental health platitudes for a therapy app. When she becomes a guinea pig in a drug study, one wonders if this might just be the best gig of all because the paycheque comes with room and board—as long as she doesn’t puke. “Now she had an apartment secured for at least two more months, an acquaintance, and two gigs. Things were coming together,” Crocker narrates in a deadpan. The book is full of such devastating one-liners.

Crocker has a gift for replicating real life on the page, authentic in its greyscale complexity. Her Gen-Z characters volunteer, boycott Amazon, and protest injustice. Sex is scrupulously consensual. They are smart and politically aware, and engage in earnest conversations about police criminality and the failures of higher education. “University is a scam,” a character declares. “If I want to learn something…I’ll go to the library. I’m not going to ask some delusional rich weirdos who’ve spent the last twenty years in this insular institution completely disconnected from the real world.” Reader, I guffawed because where is the lie?

But for all their admirable convictions, Marcy and her friends are remarkably cavalier with each other’s emotions. Marcy gets entangled with a hot-tempered woman who ices her out on a whim. The pair agree to non-monogamy, though both are jealous, and neither dates anyone else. Marcy is painfully lonely, yet she self-sabotages budding friendships, absenting herself from them whenever her situationship is on the upswing. It’s as if financial insecurity has leached into these young people’s lives, making them resistant to any kind of tether.

Marcy is flawed, but she’s also endearingly eager to please, the kind of self-conscious, polite customer who orders a pint and asks the server’s permission to sit at the bar. It’s easy to root for her, and the book’s lucid, flowing prose makes reading effortless.

Late in the novel, there is a flashback. Marcy recalls a day trip she made with friends to see a beached whale in Trepassy. The teens hot box the car. They set off fireworks at sunset. The whale itself—enormous, deflated—inspires no great emotion, but gazing over the ocean, Marcy feels dizzy and thinks this might be an approximation of the high she was chasing. The return journey is quick, and when she’s surprised to find they’ve arrived back home, one of her friends quips: “That’s why it’s called the Loop. You end up back where you started.”

The reverie encapsulates the novel, which eschews a conventional plot in favour of astute conversation and meandering action. (Crocker’s characters would be at home in a Sally Rooney novel, and vice versa.) Perhaps imposing three acts and a climactic epiphany on such a hyper-real story would be artificial. What resonates at the end of Back in the Land of the Living is neither the destination nor journey but the unsettling terrain, that vast, vertiginous ocean. It’s difficult to escape the notion that the title is ironic, another of Crocker’s blistering one-liners. An unsettling reminder that we, like the characters, are wandering amongst the ruins of late-stage capitalism in the land of the living dead.

Sharon Bala’s best-selling debut novel, The Boat People, won the 2020 Newfoundland & Labrador Book Award and the 2019 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction, was short listed for several awards, and is in translation in four languages. Sharon is a member of The Port Authority, a St. John’s writing group. Visit her at: