Night in the World by Sharon English

With three kinds of wandering in an urban forest, Night in the World follows siblings Justin and Oliver, after their mother dies, an event which has profound effects for both of them. The third story is that of Gabe, a graduate student researching moths, and a budding love interest for Oliver, as they both start grappling with their relationships to the environment more deeply. This is a complex character study of three distinct individuals, with the plot being secondary. It’s a slow and somewhat difficult start – Justin is a fairly unlikeable character who is clearly on a path of self-destruction, after not dealing with his emotions and relationships for years. Oliver, conversely, starts the book in a place of stagnancy and uncertainty; after his journalism career collapsed and a divorce, he is working in administration at a gym, and existing quietly and fitfully. Gabe is far more interesting at the outset than either of the brothers: having returned to Ontario to attend graduate school after working with Parks Canada in Kejimkujik. She is determined to do a study of moths, the gap in knowledge of moths in any area in Canada troubling her. A little dreamy, but determined to honour the land she lives on and conduct her research ethically – without killing any of the moths – she struggles in the rigid, colonial world of academic research.

“I love character studies, and so ultimately, I was satisfied with this book.”

Without much to indicate where we might be going, the first several chapters of the book are challenging, as well as separate. However, once Gabe and Oliver finally meet, the novel begins to gain steam. I love character studies, and so ultimately, I was satisfied with this book. It’s also telling that I was in such pain reading Justin’s chapters of destruction and spiralling. English’s ability to create three distinct character voices in a character-driven novel and all at very different points in their lives: Gabe, at a new beginning; Oliver, learning to find meaning again; and Justin, trying to cope inside a life he doesn’t recognize anymore – this is truly strong writing and development.

Night in the World is a very Toronto novel. Toronto is the fourth main character in this story, the different pieces of the city and the nature in and around it figure largely in all three characters’ lives. Justin finds himself becoming part of the city in ways he did not know before, while Oliver is spurred to return to environmental journalism through a friendship with his neighbour, his relationship with Gabe, and the news that his mother had never sold the original family home on the Toronto Islands. Gabe’s work is about getting a profile of the moths of the nearby area. Unfortunately, because I’ve never spent much time in Toronto at all, most of the descriptions were lost on me, but I did get a much stronger feel for nature and the actual land in Toronto, which I’ve never felt on my brief visits to the region. I look forward to someday spending more time with the Toronto English describes in her novel.

See also  River, Diverted by Jamie Tennant

A challenging character study, this is a strikingly hopeful novel, for all that it can be bleak. Night in the World isn’t easy to read or easy to define, but it is graceful in its execution and powerful in throwing up a lens on our current climate dilemma and our colonial relationships with the land.


Sharon English has published two collections of short stories, Uncomfortably Numb and Zero Gravity, as well as stories and essays in numerous journals. Zero Gravity was longlisted for the Giller Prize and ReLit Award, and included in the Globe & Mail‘s Top 100 titles for the year. Originally from London, Ontario, Sharon lived for many years in Toronto and now makes her home in Nova Scotia.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Freehand Books (May 1 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 350 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1990601022
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1990601026

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