Back to the Country
- Réjean Ducharme (Author)
Go Figure. Talonbooks (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Lise Tremblay (Author)
Mile End. Talonbooks (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Christiane Frenette (Author)
The Whole Night Through. Cormorant Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Lee Skallerup
These three novels share more than the pedigree of their authors (each of whom is a Governor-General’s Literary Award winner); all three narrators are scared, and all three seek to alleviate this fear by heading to what is now unfamiliar to them, by heading back to the country. Lost in a world that ignores, mistreats, or misunderstands them, each of the protagonists finds peace and understanding by heading far outside the city to the rural landscapes that Quebec literature has, since the 1960s, typically avoided.
Lise Tremblay’s nameless narrator from Mile End, winner of the Governor General’s Award in 1999, is an obese, part-time piano player. She lives in the Montreal neighborhood of Mile End, whose sights, smells, eateries, and personalities are vividly recreated in the novel. Estranged from her family, food and drink are her only comfort, leading her to appear to continuously increase in size. She has few friends and spends most of the novel alone with the image of her father, whose face is on the cover of every French tabloid, is the guest on every late-night talk show, and is the embodiment of the dream of “making it.” The question that haunts her is at what cost did her father’s success come?
While the novel primarily takes place in the city, the rural past is never far from the narrator’s mind. Her father, a successful television producer and a major celebrity on the Quebec scene, fled the “forest that imprisoned” his youth, divorced his rural-bred wife, and practically disowned his daughter when she began to grow fat “like [her] grandmother and aunt; a pink fattie with a lovely face.” The narrator, too, held in contempt those who remained in tiny rural village. That is until she is compelled to visit the family she has cut herself off from. A revelation of what life could have been is enough to drive her to one final tragic act.
Jeanne, the narrator of Christiane Frenette’s The Whole Night Through, sits watching a moose – who in a twist of fortune was hit by a stray bullet – die, and reflects on the stray bullets of her own life. We meet 19-year-old Jeanne, a shy disinterested insomniac. A bullet strikes in the form of Marianne; she articulates what Jeanne wants to say and lives the way Jeanne longs to live. Their friendship is brief, yet powerful and persistent, and it haunts Jeanne throughout the course of the narrative. Another strike leads Jeanne to “a small town on the St. Laurence,” to her friend Gabrielle – whose own stray bullet was a hit-and-run. When Jeanne decides not to leave, she feels for the first time that “she has found something. . . . An ease she hasn’t known before, the confidence that she hasn’t made a mistake.” As a whole, The Whole Night Through is beautiful and haunting. It is a reflection of the role fortune plays in life, a reflection of one’s ignorance of what will prove to be long-lasting, life-altering, and ultimately to lead to happiness.
Rémi, the diarist of Réjean Ducharme’s Go Figure, is also trying to make sense of how his life ended up where it is. Renovating a cottage north of Montreal, he waits for Mammy (his wife) to rejoin him and start anew. She is exploring Europe with Rémi’s former mistress Raïa after the miscarriage of their twin daughters. While Rémi renovates and tries to understand his wife’s need to flee from him, he befriends an eclectic group of neighbors, including Fannie, a young, precocious girl. He is a modern man: looking for both lover and mother. It is difficult to feel sympathy for him; he pines for his lost wife, while simultaneously lusting after his former mistress, his two female neighbors, and seeking out prostitutes in Montreal. The men in the narrative are absent, unwilling or unable to participate in any meaningful way in society: Mary, the next door neighbor and Fannie’s mother, is married to a former professor who is slowly dying from brain tumor, while her “handy-man” brother still happily lives with their mother because “he doesn’t need anything, especially not a job or a woman.” Jena, who lives across the street, is married to a Hell’s Angel who is in prison, and is “taken care of” by his associates. The women of the novel have all learned how to survive without the help of the men, and it is the lesson that Raïa seeks to teach Mammy on their voyage. Rémi never seems to come to a meaningful conclusion as to why Mammy needed to flee from him, and thus does not seem to learn any lesson himself.
The question that each narrator asks in the stories is very much the same: how did I get to this point in my life? The conclusion, if one is reached at all, is different for each protagonist. Ultimately, Mile End provides the most scathing criticism of modern society and the values that we seem to celebrate, while The Whole Night Through offers a hopeful view of life in the face of forces seemingly larger than we are. Go Figure masterfully uses language (translator Will Browning deserves special recognition for his recreation in English of the verbal word play of Ducharme’s French) as a shield, both allowing Rémi to hide behind his wit, and disconnecting the reader from the story. We remember the words, but not the sentiments that inspired them. The driving force of the narrative is to find out if Rémi’s wife ever came home, but once that is revealed, readers may discover they are only marginally affected by the results. However, this may prove to be the subtlest form of criticism: the reader cannot care, because the narrator who relates the story does not seem to either.
- "An Alien Soil" by Dorothy F. Lane
Books reviewed: Slammin' Tar by Cecil Foster and The Origin of Waves by Austin Clarke
- In the City by Maggie Helwig
Books reviewed: Girls Fall Down by Maggie Helwig and The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway
- French Canadian Narratives by Heinz Antor
Books reviewed: Der frankokanadische Roman der dreissiger Jahre. Eine ideologiekritische Darstellung. Canadiana Romanica Vol. 14 by Klaus-Dieter Ertler
- A Few Pearls in a Lot of Gravel by Anupama Mohan
Books reviewed: City of Rains by Nirmal Dass
- Witness Borne by Susan Gingell
Books reviewed: Where She Was Standing by Maggie Helwig and The Path of Totality: New and Selected Stories by Audrey Thomas
MLA: Skallerup, Lee. Back to the Country. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 22 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #187 (Winter 2005), Littérature francophone hors-Québec / Francophone Writing Outside Quebec. (pg. 129 - 130)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.