Review: Disappearing in Reverse is a triumph of the feminist picaresque

Victoria author Allie McFarland writes with fearless honesty and relish about sex in all its complexity, in her delightful new novella, Disappearing in Reverse

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Disappearing in Reverse

Allie McFarland | University of Calgary Press

$24.99, 230 pages

The picaresque novel, an antic, entertaining genre first developed among Spanish writers in the 1500s, usually features a low born rogue who lives on his wits in a louche world populated by similarly ragged and ethically ambiguous anti-heroes. The gendered pronoun in the last sentence is used advisedly. Until recently, the heroes of picaresque novels have been usually, although not entirely, male.

Victoria author Allie McFarland’s delightful new novella, Disappearing in Reverse, playfully reverses that genre convention by making her protagonist a young woman and sending her off on a quest for a lost lover, presumed dead but now turning up in mysterious images online.

The book follows her quest as she searches for Devin in among the lost and wounded across Western Canada’s scruffy youth bohemias, takes up with a charming car thief, steals when she needs to and fights or flees when necessary.


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In the time-honoured tradition of the phallocentric picaresque, McFarland’s protagonist has erotic adventures on the road.

This author writes with fearless honesty and relish about sex in all its complexity. She manages this, admirably, without the suggestion of a febrile snicker that attends sex writing among most male authors. This is a considerable and impressive achievement and is reminiscent of the similarly deft treatment of erotic material in two other recent stand out novels from Canadian women, Sarah Louise Butler’s The Wild Heavens in 2020 and Victoria Hetherington’s 2019 masterpiece, Mooncalves.

The one element in this otherwise delightful novel that strikes a discordant note is the surreal opening scene in which our protagonist takes a corpse she is picking up for her job at a mortuary through the drive-in lane at a fast-food outlet to buy  the departed an ice cream cone. This is funny stuff, but it seems out of sync with the rest of the novel, suggesting it might be a surviving stub from a sub- plot developed more thoroughly in an earlier draft.

The picaresque genre does not usually feature profound and nuanced character development to supplement its antic adventurers, action and occasional satiric turns. Disappearing in Reverse is an exception. The protagonist is a comic shape-shifter and adventurer, just as the genre demands, and her string of adopted aliases provides an ongoing and effective postmodern comic effect. But she is also an agonizingly accurate portrait of loss, grief and regret who comes with an exquisitely well rendered inner life.

Highly recommended.

Tom Sandborn lives and writes in Vancouver. He remembers the quests and road trips of his youth with great affection. He welcomes feedback and story tips at

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