By Julie Kish
At Last Count
By Claire Ross Dunn
Invisible Publishing, 2022
At Last Count is Toronto writer Claire Ross Dunn’s first novel, but she is no stranger to the Canadian writing scene. She is an accomplished TV scriptwriter who has worked on Degrassi, Little Mosque on the Prairie, and several rom-com movies. This experience may have given her the skill to create the powerful protagonist in At Last Count. The character of Paisley Ratchford is so masterfully written she seems to jump off the page.
As the story begins, Paisley, a single 39-year-old woman, is about to be evicted from her soon-to-be-demolished Toronto apartment. She has lived in the building for her entire adult life and hates any kind of change, so her housing crisis has left her paralyzed with indecision. As her anxiety increases, Paisley experiences a full-blown resurgence of the obsessive-compulsive disorder that has plagued her since childhood. She refers to herself as “a big bag of crazy.” When stressed, she is haunted by images of fires breaking out everywhere and is convinced she must count everything in sets of eights to prevent catastrophe. The counting, the repetition and the rules are exhausting and all-consuming. At times the OCD symptoms prevent Paisley from leaving her home.
With nowhere to go, she decides to explore the option of returning to her vacant childhood home on Amherst Island. Traumatic memories from her childhood and recollections of her mother’s mental health problems have kept her away from the island for twenty years. Since she doesn’t own the house, she contacts the local law firm that manages the property. Unfortunately, the lawyer assigned to her case is Garnet Mulligan, the classmate who bullied and tormented her ceaselessly. To find a place to live, she will have to return to Amherst Island and face all the sources of her childhood trauma.
At Last Count is a masterfully crafted, captivating page-turner. It’s a character-driven story, and what a fabulous character we are given. I root for Paisley from the beginning and have the urge to wrap my arms around this heartwarming soul and tell her everything will be okay.
The first chapter is set in present-day Toronto, and the next one is on Amherst Island when Paisley is 13 years old. The chapters alternate with this back-and-forth timeline, giving the readers insight into the root of Paisley’s challenges.
Parts of the novel are autobiographical in nature. The author had OCD symptoms when she was younger, which may have contributed to her highly empathetic portrayal of the disorder. The author describes the painful, spiralling process of living with OCD with particular authenticity. The novel is also a nod to Amherst Island, a real island on the eastern side of Lake Ontario. The author was first introduced to the island when visiting some of her husband’s family members, and the island’s majestic beauty inspired her to use it as the setting for the novel.
This may be Claire Ross Dunn’s first novel, but I hope it isn’t her last. I thoroughly enjoyed devouring this book. As a nod to Amherst Island, enjoy this book with a glass of Prince Edward County wine.