• Pascale Quiviger
    The Breakwater House. House of Anansi Press
  • Jan E. Conn
    Euphoria. Coteau Books
  • A. J. M. Smith
    The Book of Canadian Prose: Vol. I. Early Beginnings to Confederation. Gage
Reviewed by Paul Denham

The Breakwater House is a book of family chronicles: Aurore tells her daughter Lucie stories of Aurore’s parents, Jean and Kathleen, and her own absent husband. And Suzanne takes her daughter Claire (or rather, Lucie disguised as Claire) to visit her mother-in-law, Granny Cadieux, in the nursing home. The families converge as Aurore and Suzanne, though of different social classes, become friends, and as Lucie and Claire share clothes and even trade identities. When Lucie is fifteen, her mother Aurore deserts her for a female lover Maria. A fourth generation makes its appearance when Lucie has a baby—a girl, of course—named Odyssee, who dies in a childhood accident.

Women dominate these stories; the men, when they appear, function as sperm donors and then discreetly vanish. Indeed, Alambra, Suzanne’s immigrant Latin American housekeeper, once had a husband who was arrested in her home country and made to disappear. That’s what happens to men in this book—they disappear. Paul, the father of Lucie’s child, won’t accept his responsibilities, and Lucie does not expect him to. In Aurore’s story of her absent husband, he wears “a coat of chain mail and a hood of white gold filigree” and is “upright, strong, and courageous, which is why he’s in hiding.” An invisible knight in armour makes a poor father. Suzanne’s husband Gerald gets a little more time; Suzanne pictures him as “a punctured watering hose with very little water remaining at the spout, while she and Claire shrivel in plain sight like small potted flowers.” Elsewhere we hear that “her marriage is perfect and perfectly unhappy . . . [Gerald] pays for everything she wants in cash without complaining and is on the road three days out of four.” Perhaps that’s as good as it gets—punctured watering hose and all.

Untypically, Lucie’s grandfather Jean, a coureur de bois (one of the hints that the story is to be read as an allegory of Quebec history), “enfolded [his Irish-Canadian wife Kathleen] in his male passion, threadbare cotton, capable arms, and perpetually untied bootlaces.” He tries to rescue her from the persecutions of the villagers and fails. When Aurore tells this story to Lucie, Lucie asks, “Jean, my grandfather, can we go see him?” Aurore’s evasively chilling reply is, “How about making some blueberry jam? What do you say?” And so Jean, the only heroic male and plausibly good husband in the book, is also made to disappear.

A kind of counterpoint to this story is the story of the Breakwater House, a strangely shifting seaside place bought by an anonymous woman who seems to be writing the stories of these characters in a series of notebooks. “It [the house] is the place concocted by whatever in me has retained the ability to see, to heal, to hope.” It is, it seems, the house of fiction itself, and at the end, with her story completed, she can leave it.

There are likewise many disappearances in Euphoria, beginning on the first page when a mysterious young woman gives birth in Mrs. Ryley’s Toronto boarding house in 1891 and then walks into Lake Ontario. Gladdie McConnell, a lowly domestic in the house, tries to take charge of the newborn girl, but her intentions are thwarted when the Children’s Aid finds an adoptive home for her. The early part of the novel reaches back into Gladdie’s early life—Margaret, her beloved first caregiver, vanishes; Gladdie herself deliberately disappears after some time in a sexually abusive home, and manages to secure a place in Mrs. Ryley’s kitchen. We can see that she could easily end up on the streets, but by sheer cunning and strength of will she manages to survive and become a kind of long-distance guardian to the baby, Orillia. Orillia’s original father, Johnny Dabb, also disappears, but not completely; Gladdie keeps an eye on Orillia and reports to him even as he moves first to the US and then to England. Feckless and cowardly though Johnny is, one has to acknowledge that he is somewhat more than a sperm donor; he wants at least to know what happens to his child. Orillia thus has an adoptive family, but also a kind of secret mother in Gladdie, as well as a secret father.

In the early years of the twentieth century, Orillia and her parents move to rural Saskatchewan, and Gladdie, by this time ready to try something outside the drizzly winter twilight of Toronto, follows her. She and her friend Hilda look after Orillia after she is injured in the Regina cyclone of 1912, when her mother, widowed and remarried, is out of the country. Hilda even suspects Gladdie of being Orillia’s real mother, but when Florence, Orillia’s adoptive mother, finally turns up, they both acknowledge that she has the true claim. In the closing words of the book, Gladdie knows that “she had been right to let go. Florence Cooper was a mother, and love and respect were her due. She was haughty and cranky and less than ideal, but she was there, she was real, as real a mother as you could ever imagine stepping up to the door.”  The adoptive mother is the genuine article, and Gladdie, in spite of her unpromising origins, has made a success of her life.

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