JM Frey’s Triptych is an outstanding debut novel and a welcome and refreshing addition to the genre of Canadian science fiction. Brimming with richly detailed characters and a complex nuanced plot, the narrative universe contained with Triptych is captivating and engaging from the intensely vivid first opening sentences through to the stunning conclusion.
When a previously unknown race of aliens arrives on Earth – the few remaining survivors from a distant destroyed planet – humanity has to learn to adapt and adjust to the inclusion of a foreign species. As humans and aliens interact and learn the ways of each others’ civilizations, both slowly begin to change unexpectedly. Each must come to terms with their own collective culture shock and confront their own assumptions and embedded social beliefs.
Specialist Gwen Pierson and Specialist Doctor Basil Grey are members of the Institute, formed by the United Nations when the alien refugees initially appear, nearly dead and desperately seeking a new home. Recognizing the complexities of how humans would react to the inclusion of aliens into the global community, the Institute is created to help the two cultures learn from one another, and more specifically, to assist the aliens in adapting to human customs and traditions. Kalp, an alien engineer, is assigned to work with Gwen and Basil and over time, an intimate loving relationship develops between them in new and unexpected ways. Frey keeps the reader constantly and consistently on edge as the story unfolds, moving back and forth in time/space, across countries, and between three differing character perspectives. Nothing is by chance, nothing is trivial, and even the most innocent seeming of background events has significance and meaning.
Triptych can be enjoyed as an entertaining and clever literary feast filled with alien encounters, time travel, a sexy romance, and highly amusing references to contemporary popular culture. But at a deeper level, the novel sensitively addresses many contemporary social issues being confronted globally. Through the relationship of Gwen, Basil and Kalp, larger questions surrounding human norms of sex/gender roles, sexuality, the family, love, personal identity, marriage, social inequalities, xenophobia and prejudice, tolerance and acceptance, technological reliance, and the roles of the military and scientific communities are posed and explored. The novel is highly imaginative and filled with big multi-layered ideas and thought-provoking themes that challenge the reader to reflect upon the most basic and profound of philosophic inquiries into the nature of humanity and the human condition.
As a writer, Frey has a keen eye to detail, giving depth and meaning with every carefully crafted sentence. Her style is wonderfully witty, elegant, and a delightful pleasure to read. As a result, Triptych is an emotional novel, one that captures the reader to the point where what is felt and experienced by Gwen, Basil, Kalp and other characters is made real and authentic. They are not perfect beings and, throughout various points in the storyline, are shown to be prone to errors, misjudgments and flaws even as they reflect the best attributes and traits of what people (and aliens) are capable of achieving.
A beautiful and moving exploration into the human soul from an incredibly talented Canadian author, Triptych is an absorbing novel from beginning to end, and one that will strike a chord and resonate with many readers. It can be read and reread multiple times, and each time the reader will find new meanings, insights and revelations. A love story, a mystery thriller, a science fiction tale … all of these serve as the compelling backdrop to that which is Triptych.
Dr. Jennifer Brayton is an associate professor in Sociology at Ryerson
University, and a scholar in Canadian popular culture studies.