Marta Elzinga has been living with guilt for the last decade. It has put a strain on her marriage, her career, all of her relationships. Now she’s looking for a way to reconcile her guilt, but first she needs a sign. When she spots an elusive and rare mink near the Toronto Island Airport and later a rock dove aboard the subway at Bathurst Station, she believes she has her message, but to do what?
Should she leave her husband, quit her job, start a new life somewhere?
Her questioning leads her to some interesting—and illegal—urban exploration, traversing the sewer tunnels beneath the city’s streets. Through these excursions, Marta learns about the dark places that are hidden from view, paralleling the internal struggles she has kept concealed.
In the end, Marta finds grace and reconciliation: “Grace was the sort of gift that came with no obligation, no expectation of reciprocation. It wasn’t good fortune, like winning the raffle or being caller number nine. It was a deliberate act, an act that flowed from kindness and generosity,” the author writes.
The novel, the first by Patricia Westerhof, was inspired by a real circumstance in the author’s life. “Many years ago at the beginning of my teaching career, a student of mine went home and hanged herself,” said Westerhof. “It stayed with me all these years. I always wondered if there was something I could have done or should have noticed. I wondered what it would be like to choose to end your life at such a young age. That always haunted me.”
Westerhof said she also was intrigued by people who pay exorbitant sums for dental X-rays that exhibit the likeness of Jesus’ face or a grilled cheese emblazoned with Mary’s likeness. “My main character was inspired by people who are desperately looking for signs,” she said.
Westerhof weaves together Marta’s underground exploration with her internal evaluation, both of which lead to more searching.
“I’m fascinated by the things we try to hide, whether it’s the infrastructure of a city or deep feelings, particularly shame,” said Westerhof.
To gain a better understanding of what lies beneath a city, Westerhof did some urban exploration—legally—of her own town, Toronto.
“I had read other accounts of it, but lots of details were missing. I wanted to know how icky was it? I couldn’t find anything about the acoustics either, how would it sound down there?” she said.
Her own investigation shapes the description of Marta’s adventures under the city: “The water was a cacophony of white noise at the bottom … . She could feel her rubber boots and her feet inside them cool as she stood in the ankle-deep water that coursed down the gentle slope of the drain. … Her headlamp shone on some graffiti—the initials C.J.K., she thought, on one of the walls, making her wonder who else came down here.”
The book is also influenced by Westerhof’s faith background, including references to the Christian Reformed Church. “In no way am I attempting to write Christian fiction, though,” she explained. “I am fascinated with the how humanity relates to the divine. Books about spirituality are still current; I believe people are as spiritual as ever. And whether you are writing for a religious or secular audience, you need to continue to deal with spirituality.”
Thus, the novel is written for either audience.
The book ends with some questions lingering. “Depending on how hopeful and positive a person is, they can use that to interpret the ending,” she explained. “I left it there because that’s where it finishes. What the book is really about is how you find grace and peace in spite of the circumstances of your life.”