• David Clerson
    Brothers. QC Fiction (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Virginia Pésémapéo Bordeleau
    Winter Child. Freehand Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)

In human relationships, interdependence is a concept of symmetrizing scope. An attachment figure may either nurture or hinder a dependent’s sense of self and independence. An excess of care, or an excess of dependency, may lead to an unsettling overflux, with a reinstitution of balance being the point that can resolve the negative effects of both. The theme of relational balance figures in Virginia Pésémapéo Bordeleau’s (Cree-Métis) Winter Child, and is also centred, albeit uncannily, in David Clerson’s Brothers. Bordeleau’s novella is a meditation on mortality and grief. A mother struggles to process the loss of her son who, even while in hospice, “fought his caregivers” for his independence and freedom. Clerson’s protagonist’s mother is conversely wary of unhealthy detachment: “the world is a cruel place, too cruel to be faced alone.” As her son loses his connection to his kin, the result is a chaotic trajectory of violence. Moreover, each book features protagonists for whom human connection is a way to “share the unbearable” dimensions of loss, in Bordeleau’s phrase.

Bordeleau’s semi-autobiographical, poetic depiction of a grieving Métis mother is at all times a reflective work. From the first pages, she recalls how her son was born unbreathing. Those “interminable minutes of intimate terror” elicit an enduring cycle of anxiety and postpartum distress. It is revealed early on that “death will take the child it had stalked since birth,” and Bordeleau foregrounds this inevitability in her prose. When he suffers from fever, she recognizes the stakes of their relationship: “that he would be her wound,” and that “she would have to battle to keep him with her.” After his death, she finds peace in a dream conversation where he provides liminal last words of reassurance and closure: “All will be well, you’ll see.” His mother concludes: “I was the ship my son boarded for his journey through life”—although their interdependence is transient, their bond endures. At times, Bordeleau’s shifting viewpoints and non-linear plot make for a disorienting read, particularly when it is not clear who is the subject of certain sentences. While some sentences seem unwieldy, these meanderings maintain a flowing lyricism, with passages steered by effective punctuation and diction. The task of translating the lush craftings of a grieving mother is difficult, and Susan Ouriou and Christelle Morelli’s graceful work is praiseworthy.

Brothers, also translated from the French, is a kind of odyssey and Bildungsroman
told from the perspective of a nameless older brother. He is born to an estranged, cyanthropic father and a human mother who grows increasingly blind. She is a protective figure who tells cautionary tales about “worlds of darkness and brutality.” Fearing for her son’s loneliness, she severs his arm and from it moulds a younger brother—a secondary attachment figure of interdependence wrought from his own carnal detachment. They dwell in their seaside home until the boys, yearning for adventure, decide to depart to search for their “dog of a father.” When the brothers are separated at sea, the novel takes a violent turn. Driven by distemperate grief, the older brother transforms into a dog and, in this pseudo-depersonalized state, forms an intimate relationship with a female dog. Her captivity fuels his blood lust. In time, the older brother retreats to his mother’s homestead, where he is electrified by the “touching delirium” of childhood memories. The absence of his sea-swept brother registers poignantly—a panging akin to phantom limb pain. The novel ends with the older brother contemplating “an atrocious act of self-mutilation”—an attempt to “rebirth” his brother through the dismemberment of his only arm. Yet he is unable to execute this action. Like a lonely embodiment of driftwood, or perhaps a pre-Geppetto Pinocchio, the brother detachedly endures. Though linear, each vignette in this narrative is advanced through a dreamlike logic. Brothers is a flawlessly translated, riveting work. In her translation, award-winning poet Katia Grubisic gives texture to certain moments of violence through crude diction and a tone that registers a hint of nonchalance. Although this novel was published in English in 2016, it was originally published in French in 2013 and won the 2014 Archambault literary prize in recognition of new Québécois talent.

These short works by Bordeleau and Clerson are recommended for university courses in contemporary Canadian literature, and to readers interested in poetic prose. The relational tethers, overfluxes, and allying interpersonal tensions are among the compelling aspects of the two books.

This review “(Inter)dependencies” originally appeared in House, Home, Hospitality Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 237 (2019): 136-137.

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