Lives and Times

Reviewed by Gisèle M. Baxter

The memoirist is a storyteller and a selector of details. Germain and Priest have in common a focus on what could roughly be called the coming-of-age narrative, though there the similarity pretty much ends.

I clearly remember the 1970 Quebec Crisis. The noisy aftermath of the Quiet Revolution and the rise of separatism were part of the ongoing discussions of my teens. I wonder how I might have responded to Jean-Claude Germain’s memoirs (translated by Donald Winkler) had this not been the case. The book makes me think of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and my initial horror as a very young reader at the hellfire sermon as well as my shock when an older classmate laughed at it and pointed out Joyce’s use of satire. In a way, Germain, a historian and theatre producer now in his mid-seventies, narrates Quebec’s Modernist moment: the post-Duplessis intellectual and cultural Quiet Revolution that through the 1960s would evolve and ferment into more direct action, with a lasting impact on the province’s (and indeed on Canada’s) political landscape. Reading between the lines, the repressive tactics of his Jesuit-run classical education do seem harrowing, but Germain’s memoir defines them as an education in liberation: once free, do what you were forbidden to do. Germain writes with the flair of the raconteur, the boulevardier: this slim, anecdotal, richly detailed, joyfully irreverent volume creates a vivid pastiche, with manifesto, of an era when “The Queen of the Night Straddled a Vespa” and young artists aspired to “The Art of Living Like Shooting Stars.”

And yet, somehow, journalist Alicia Priest’s very personal memoir is probably the more broadly affecting, in speaking that moment when a child realizes their parents might not always tell the truth. She traces how her idyllic 1950s childhood in a Yukon mining company town was effectively a sham: her father proved a liar and thief, perpetrator of a massive heist scheme, eventually unmasked and imprisoned. The setting comes to life through precisely observed detail and anecdote, and Priest keeps the focus on her personal journey. The book is also a compelling piece of investigative journalism with echoes of the mystery novel, not just in its extensive research, filling in the gaps unperceived by a small child, but in its recreation of her parents as characters through her mother’s hoarded cache of correspondence. The story does not end as neatly as many coming-of-age or mystery novels: it goes on to the messy aftermath of her father’s incarceration, the destruction of the family, her long estrangement from and rediscovery of her father (“[forgiveness] has nothing to do with love”), and his death from dementia. Her attempt to come to terms with this deception and betrayal, and its consequences, gains a poignant urgency in realizing that Priest wrote it suffering from the ALS that killed her early in 2015.

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