Twenty-One Cardinals. Coach House Books
Close to Hugh. Doubleday Canada
Published originally as Les héritiers de la mine, Jocelyne Saucier’s novel about a scattered, semi-mythic clan of estranged siblings becomes the captivating Twenty-One Cardinals in the hands of its translator, Rhonda Mullins. “We’re nothing like other families,” says the first of the novel’s six narrators as the story begins to unfold. “We are self-made. We are an essence unto ourselves, unique and dissonant, the only members of our species.”
The novel’s frame narrative is subtly reminiscent of a closed circle mystery. The year is 1995, and the adult Cardinal siblings, nearly two dozen of them, have gathered from the far corners of the earth to congregate in a hotel at the southern edge of Val-d’Or. In the midst of their family reunion, an unspoken secret looms large. Like the Cardinal clan’s own history, the hotel is a “labyrinth of corridors and illusion,” and as the siblings gather together within this space, readers may begin to wonder if a body will soon be discovered.
The novel unfolds compellingly through the voices of six of the Cardinal children, and in Mullins’s hands each of these voices is realized deftly, with subtle shifts in tone and style that allow discrete perspectives and personalities to emerge. The mystery at the heart of the novel comes steadily into view as each narrator recounts their memories, and the result is a gripping narrative that this reviewer, for one, found impossible to put down. For this reason, it is disappointing to find that the seventh and last chapter is also the most laboured. Like Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, Saucier cannot resist bringing all of the novel’s characters together in the final act for a much-anticipated revelation of the truth. Although readers will no doubt welcome this climax and closure, the exposition is uncharacteristically melodramatic, and the moral of the story is laid on rather thick. Not having read the original, I cannot say if this is an effect of the translation from one idiom to another. Happily, however, this weakness is outweighed by the novel’s many strengths.
Whereas the interwoven perspectives in Twenty-One Cardinals combine to create a cohesive and harmonious whole, the interlocking elements that Marina Endicott brings together in Close to Hugh create something of a puzzle. On the one hand, the novel is intensely literary. It sustains an intimate free-indirect style that is often reminiscent of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse; it incorporates rich and perceptive ekphrases on various visual arts, and it embeds significant commentary on works such as A Streetcar Named Desire, Twelfth Night, and The Importance of Being Earnest. On the other hand, Endicott makes use of a number of devices that hold the novel’s seriousness in check. Most chapters have been given the names of popular phrases, song titles, and film titles in which the word “you” has been replaced consistently with “Hugh,” as in: “I Only Have Eyes for Hugh” and “Guess Hugh’s Coming to Dinner.” While these are often charming, other elements tend towards kitsch. Most sections include epigraphs that have been excerpted from Wikipedia entries on Buddhism, and although they might be said to offer some commentary on the collaborative nature of knowledge, it is difficult to feel that they are integral to the work as a whole.
Close to Hugh spans roughly two weeks in the life of one Hugh Argylle—“an Everyman for our times,” as the book’s jacket copy declares—and as the narration dips in and out of the lives of the characters who orbit Hugh, the novel creates a composite portrait of a close-knit and familial community in an invented Peterborough. Some of the novel’s characters are merely types: Hugh’s mother, Mimi, is distinctly reminiscent of the legendary Margaret Trudeau; Burton, a large gay man whose appetites are made menacing, is exploited as both villain and jester. Although Endicott has a gift for free-indirect style, the undeniable beauty of her narration does not always allow for strong differentiation between the voices of the novel’s many characters. The teenagers suffer most in this regard: apart from being exceptionally talented in each of their chosen arts, they are rendered exceptionally well-spoken as well. This makes them seem airbrushed and glossy, and also, somehow, somewhat quaint.
Overall, Close to Hugh is an ambitious book that does not succeed at every level, but remains in many ways an impressive and captivating read.