Where the River Narrows / Aimeé Laberge
Toronto: HarperCollins, c2003.
This was an amazing book, a serendipitous find that I can't believe I hadn't heard of before. Set in Québec, it is a multi-generational story of a family of women, heavily enmeshed with the province's history. Our modern day narrator, Lucie, is a librarian and a history buff, who is working at the Canada House library in London, England, with her two daughters and her socially aware physician husband.
Lucie's quest to uncover family history leads us to the story of her staunchly Catholic great-grandmother and her mostly absent great-grandfather, one of the last of the coureur de bois. His wandering nature leads to the existence of his respectable 'city' family and another whole family in the bush. The repercussions of his presence and absence are felt down the generations.
Lucie's story is told in the first person, while the family stories are told in the third person. The original generation was deeply fascinating; the way in which the story was told, the elements of their lives, all of that was rich and complex and completely engrossing. The two daughters of the house grow up and create the second story, one full of children and marriages and Quebec history. There were so many children in the family, however, that I had to keep turning back to the family tree in the front of the book to make sure I had the character correctly placed. The large Catholic family with a multitude of children, plus a priest who appears and reappears in the tale, may seem a little bit stereotypical, yet that situation was the norm in Quebec for a very long time. Plus the main characters are such individuals that it doesn't fall into cliché, rather explores a typical situation from their viewpoints.
Lucie's story takes us out of Quebec: she has married her high school boyfriend, now a doctor, whose work has taken them to England where he surgically repairs infant hearts. He is so busy and so absorbed into the needs of these poor children he is treating that their marriage is becoming shaky. Lucie herself is absorbed in her work, the nature of which naturally leads her to ponder her own family history, and thus to create this tale for us. As she describes herself near the beginning:
That's me, Lucie Des Ruisseaux, a clumsy person with newsprint on her fingers and across her forehead: thirty-nine years old, married mother of two, Québécoise in London and part-time librarian at Canada House. The rest of my work day is spent doing research for graduate students and university teachers at the British Library. The latest request I received is from a master's student doing his thesis on the early economics of Nouvelle-France, namely, the fur trade.
The book is split into parts, and each begins with an excerpt from Cartier's "Rélations" (reports on his findings in the New World). I found it very effective, and also fascinating. That could be because a) I am Canadian and b)I have my BA in Canadian history and literature, both of which I love. But I still think it is a useful technique that any reader may find of interest, both to inform and simply to appreciate. As the story continues and we get deeper into the family and thus Quebec's history, these excerpts provide context and shading.
Each generation has its own charm and its own difficulties. The storytelling is marvellously rich, and the women are fantastic creations. The only part I wasn't drawn so deeply into was Lucie's young adult life, during the late 60's and into 1970 when the political climate in Québec was in an uproar and a politician was kidnapped and murdered. Perhaps that is just because those events still feel so recent, and I was taken a little out of the book while reading those passages.
Still, I enjoyed this book very much; the subject matter, the construction, the writing, the characters, all combined to make it a memorable and satisfying reading experience. It's the kind of read you can sink into and savour over an extended time; I found I read it slowly, taking time to mentally recreate the world she was revealing so thoroughly,and to follow each character's trajectory throughout the whole book. This is the novel I will now immediately think of when anyone asks me for a good book to read that would give them a sense of Québec.
Aimée Laberge has published stories in literary magazines, radio drama on the CBC and a children’s book Le Géant Bleu (Editions Ovale). Where the River Narrows is her first novel. A skilled animator and artist, her work has been seen on television and in the London Daily Telegraph. Born and raised in la belle province, Aimée Laberge is a direct descendant of the first settlers in New France. She has lived in Québec, Montréal, Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary and London, England. She now lives in with her family in Chicago. She is currently working on a novel set in the Arctic.