Tuesday, December 14, 2010

On The Proper Use of Stars

On The Proper Use of Stars / Dominique Fortier; translated from French by Sheila Fischman.
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, c2010.
269 p.

I picked up this book some time ago, seduced by the gorgeous cover (stars? tea? I am in!) Also wanted to read it for two more reasons: it is about the Franklin Expedition, a fascination of mine (as evidenced by my Polar Reading year) and because it is a translation from French - the author Dominique Fortier is from Quebec and the translator Sheila Fischman is the best in the business. All these things were pluses. So perhaps my expectations were just a wee bit high.

I liked it. I thought it was interesting enough, with really good writing and some nice twists in the tale. However, I did find it slow moving at the start, and maybe just because I've read so many, many books about the Edwardians and polar exploration, especially Franklin, I was hoping for something new. A new take on the story, something a bit different in the perceptions of the main characters or their motivations, their actions or their fate. And perhaps it delivered this kind of newness to French readers -- is there such a tradition of stories about these polar explorers in French? I don't know, as my French reading level stops at about grade four. (Please leave a comment if you do know)

It is a very English book, and maybe that is its triumph -- it is a French book which reads like British period fiction, very convincingly. The story is two-fold, moving back and forth between Franklin, Crozier and their crew stuck in the Arctic ice, and Lady Jane Franklin and her niece Sophia left behind in Europe. The double view we have of the tale -- seeing the fate of the expedition at the same time as we see the struggles of Lady Jane to get someone to express concern about the length of time they'd been away -- gives us a omniscient view of all the characters. Crozier is the real leader of the expedition, but he is homesick for a girl who doesn't dream of him. Sophia's concerns about marriage and the men who are not there versus the men who are seem a little bit vague; her connection to one of the men early in the book isn't exactly clear, and we have no real idea of who or when she will marry, or even what she thinks of it all herself. The structure of the book mirrors the separation of the female and male worlds in Edwardian England -- Lady Jane is clearly the more ambitious and capable Franklin, and yet it is Sir John who is lauded and sent off on another expedition that he doesn't seem fit for, according to the fictional journal of his second-in-command, Crozier. The two factions, men and women, exist in utterly different worlds in this story; tea parties and political angling back in England -- frostbite and gnawing on maggot-ridden hardtack in the Arctic. I did appreciate the way Fortier drew the parallels.

I suppose I wasn't overawed by this tale as it felt very familiar to me. All the action was foregone -- I knew the personalities and the progress of events, so I didn't feel as if I'd discovered anything newly fascinating. If you haven't read as much polar fiction, or are interested simply because of the topic or the author's technique, you may find it a great read. But I also have a well-documented dislike of the use of real characters in fiction, so that shaded my feelings about this tale as well.

For a story of arctic explorers gone from home for lengthy periods of time, while their various women proceed with their lives separately at home, I preferred Andrea Barrett's Voyage of the Narwhal. But I will be quite interested to see what Fortier writes next.

DOMINIQUE FORTIER was born in 1972. She holds a Ph.D. in literature from McGill University and is an editor and literary translator. On the Proper Use of Stars, her debut novel, was first published in Quebec in 2008 as Du bon usage des étoiles and was shortlisted for the French language Governor General’s Award for Fiction, the Prix des libraires du Québec, the Grand Prix littéraire Archambault, and the Prix Senghor. It is being adapted for the screen by Jean-Marc Vallée.


  1. I haven't read that much about polar expeditions (actually, I don't think I've read anything). So do you think this one would be better for me? Or should I go for Voyage of the Narwhal instead? Both have such excellent titles!

  2. Eva - if you like your stories based in fact, you might enjoy this one...I did like the Englishness of it and the side by side lives of the men & women. But Andrea Barrett's is excellent, and delves into the scientific nature of many of the expeditions (and is fully fictional) Both pretty good reading! Barrett's a little more dense in the telling.

  3. I'm not sure if I've suggested it to you before, but Anne Fadiman has a great essay about her shelf of books about polar exploration in _Ex Libris_: "The Odd Shelf." My husband is an avid reader about polar exploration and blogs occasionally at http://franklinsghost.blogspot.com/

  4. Nathalie - I'd forgotten that Fadiman essay! I read it ages ago...now I'll have to look at it again. Ill check out your husband's blog too; sounds interesting!

  5. Forgot to add: have you read about Amy Sackville's _The Still Point_? Another novel about the north. Great review in _The Guardian_, comes out in Canada in January.


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