Lost in Transit

Reviewed by Herb Wyile

Among my favourite parts of historical novels is the acknowledgments, and Douglas Glover, in his Governor-General’s-Award-winning Elle, does not disappoint. After crediting a wide array of ethnographic sources and contemporary travel journals that fed the imaginative fire for this ribald, irreverent tale of French explorers in the New World in the 16th century, Glover adds, “Otherwise, I have tried to distort and mangle the facts as best I can.” And what a delightful mangling it is.

The majority of the historical fiction published in Canada over the last few decades has by and large striven to preserve a sense of narrative and historical plausibility, sticking if not to what ostensibly did happen in the past, then at least to what might have happened. Glover’s Elle, in contrast, is a wild, bawdy, allegorical, and conspicuously anachronistic chronicle of the experience of contact during French exploration of Eastern Canada during the 16th century, a kind of cross between Susan Swan’s The Biggest Modern Woman of the World and John Steffler’s The Afterlife of George Cartwright. Taking the rough outlines of his narrative from the story of the historical Sieur de Roberval’s abandonment of his wayward niece on the Isle of Demons in the St. Lawrence River, Glover etches a tale of contact as a mutual infection, a reciprocal destabilization of New World and Old World cosmologies.

Dreaming of creative revenge against her rigid and doctrinaire Calvinist uncle, Glover’s eponymous heroine watches her lover, nurse, and newborn son perish, while she herself, a parodic Crusoe, stubbornly persists. The novel is rich in postcolonial allegory, with Glover deftly satirizing Elle’s colonizing inclinations as she ineptly struggles to survive the harsh Canadian winter with the help of her impassive indigenous rescuer and lover, Itslk. Elle, however, is also transmogrified, shamanistically imbued with a bear-spirit, an experience that challenges Itslk’s cosmology but also leaves Elle in a liminal space upon her rescue and return to France (where presiding over her recovery is none other than Francois Rabelais, clearly the resident muse of Glover’s novel). Hers, as Elle observes, is “the anti-quest: You go on a journey, but instead of returning you find yourself frozen on the periphery, the place between places, in a state of being neither one nor the other.”

Glover thus portrays contact as a transaction much more complicated than a simple, unilateral imposition of colonial power, but the particular appeal of Elle is Glover’s evocation of the simultaneous, tumultuous transformation of the Old World – the philosophical, spiritual and political turmoil of France at the cusp of modernity, a phantasmagorical vision of inquisitorial violence, barbarity, lust and carnage. Riotously funny and iconoclastic, Glover’s novel is also a profound meditation on the politics of belief – how belief shapes our view of the world and ourselves but also shapes our oppression of others.

This review “Lost in Transit” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 184 (Spring 2005): 132-133.

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