Sunday, July 08, 2007

A Fairy Ring

Fairy Ring / Martine Desjardins; trans. by Fred A. Reed & David Homel.
Vancouver: Talonbooks, c2001.

This is a Québecois novel set in Atlantic Canada, 1895. It follows an epistolary format, though is not strictly written in letters; some journal entries, log book entries and newspaper columns are interleaved. It is like looking into a family fonds at some forgotten archive and finding it is Pandora's Box.

The basic premise is that Clara, wife of obsessed mycologist Edmond Weiss, is being isolated in a rented house on the coast of Nova Scotia in order to take the "sleep cure" for her hysteria. This involves sleeping for 15 hours a day, and eventually also being injected with morphine. The novel is rife with the dark side of Victorian pseudo-science; Freud's paper on hysteria had just been published, and both Edmond and Dr. Clavel of Dr. Clavel's Clinic recommend and carry out horrendous "treatments" with the passive Clara as their subject. The story also cuts to the log book of Capt. Ian Ryder, whose home the Weiss' are renting while he is off on a quest to reach the North Pole. He has seen Clara in passing on her wedding day and fallen deeply in love. He goes to the Arctic to try to freeze out his passions, just as Clara's passions are being frozen out both literally, with Dr. Clavel's ice water baths and compresses, and figuratively by Edmond's abusive attempts to force her to fulfill her marital duties.

This is not a book for the faint-hearted. Psychological and sexual abuse, graverobbing, cannibalism, sadomasochism, insanity, hinted-at-murder; all find a place here. Yet somehow it is also extremely erudite and compelling. Very Québecois, I'd say, from the French books I've been reading recently -- the Gothic imagination is alive and well in Quebec. It feels like a modern Poe, his suggested horrors taken one step further and viewed through a feminist eye.

The fairy ring suggested in the title ties in to Edmond's occupation as a mycologist. Fairy rings are circular growths of a mushroom fungus that may kill the grass encircled. There is also the legend that anyone who dances inside a fairy ring will be taken by the fairies, or become fey. Either of these explanations can be applied to Clara, who is being suffocated by the small circle of people surrounding her, who feed off her condition. Edmond needs her to be ill so he can continue his abusive behaviour, her sister Irene likes to make use of Clara's isolation to arrange assignations for herself, plus of course it is easy to feel superior to someone undergoing treatment for hysteria. It is only Capt. Ryder, miles away, who understands her position. He himself is prisoned on a boat locked in ice, surrounded by his mutinous crewmen. He says, "How repelled I feel by this promiscuity with individuals for whom I truly feel nothing but aversion." This could stand in for Clara's emotional state as well.

The story progresses in elaborate, cystalline Victorian prose. The intelligence in the vocabulary and breadth of familiarity with the irregularities in the Victorian psyche make this novel a disturbing yet somehow distancing feat. Indeed, ice, sculptures of glass, the wild northern ocean, frigid temperatures and solitude play a large part in this story. How Clara escapes Edmond and feels a spark of the possibility of connection with the returned Capt. Ryder depends entirely on her challenging her own passivity. The conclusion is ambiguous; Clara feels the new possibilites yet she returns to the scene of her worst degredations. Will she prevail? There is no certainty of it, but no certainty of failure, either.
This was a challenging but rewarding read, an outgrowth of a unique sensibility. The author has two more novels, which I may have to now search out.


  1. Is this being made available as a translation from the French? Or was it originally published in English?
    It sounds intriguing (and very dark).

  2. It was published in French, in Quebec and has been translated now. It has an interesting genesis, though, because the author was inspired by English material and began it in English, but then realized she needed to work in French to make it what she wanted it to be. Imagine being that linguistically flexible!

  3. This sounds like a good book. I don't think I have ever read a Quebecois novel before. I've added it to my list. I must look for it!

  4. The plot sounds interesting! I'm not usually a fan of epistolary novels, but I might have to make an exception. :)


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