Thursday, August 11, 2016

Hard Living in Northern Quebec, with Cardinals and Fireflies

I recently read two novels by Quebec authors, both of which are redolent with the kind of Quebec Gothic I've come to expect from Quebecois literature. Sometimes I really like it (ie: my fave, Fairy Ring) and sometimes I am less of a fan. Here are a couple of titles that fall somewhere in between those extremes of reaction.

Twenty-One Cardinals / Jocelyn Saucier; translated from the French by Rhonda Mullins.
Toronto: Coach House Books, c2015.
 176 p.

The Cardinal family, living in a small zinc mining town in Northern Quebec has 21 children. All in one immediate family. Trying to keep them straight is sometimes difficult. But Saucier focuses on a few of the children in particular, chapter by chapter, to make this short novel readable.

The Cardinals are the tough kids in town; nobody messes with them. They cause trouble, they bully other kids, they torture a cat (again with the animal cruelty, ugh!) But they also have a secret. There is a set of twins in this family, one girl who is tough and runs with her brothers, and the other who likes to wear frilly dresses and is endlessly and meanly teased about it. Her story turns this family inside out.

Their father is convinced they'll eventually get rich from the mine, and he allows the boys to help him there once they're old enough. But they never do get rich; in fact the mine takes more from their family than it ever gives.

It's a brief but deep story of family ties, the saintliness of a mother (of 21!), and the secrets that aren't really secrets in the end. It's also a rough and tumble story of a clutch of siblings and the way they form their own identities once they are out in the world alone. Very interesting read; I appreciated the structure and balance in it, even if I didn't fully fall in love with it.

The Goddess of Fireflies / Genevieve Pettersen; translated from the French by Neil Smith
Montreal: Vehicule Press, c2016.
163 p.

Now this is a book I *wanted* to love. The cover is beautiful, the summary is promising, and I admire the publishers a lot. This translation of a best-seller in Quebec piqued my interest. 

Unfortunately, I didn't love it. It presents itself as a tough, unflinching and realistic look at disaffected teens in the Saguenay region in the 90's, where drugs and casual sex are the norm. And it may indeed be such a thing -- but I found it included a lot of salacious detail that I didn't enjoy reading; in fact much of it felt gratuitous, as if was there solely for titillation. Besides those details, the dull boredom of these unambitious kids in a smallish town with no future was simply an uncomfortable set-up for me, probably because it reminded me of my own hometown, a place I left as soon as I could. 

I also found the conclusion unsatisfactory. The main character remains distant from her own experience through much of the book; even at the end, set during the disastrous Saguenay floods, she has no emotional affect watching the destruction. I hoped that the metaphor would be carried through, but it just seemed to sit there, underdeveloped. 

I can see how this book is shockingly timely -- how it shows a time and place clearly -- but I just couldn't connect with the characters in the way that I think many people have, with empathy and recognition. So much so that it's being adapted into a film. But this is probably a readerly failing, not a writerly one: this just isn't my book.


  1. Wow, I love the covers of both of these! But yeah, I'm afraid that disaffected teens will never be my thing -- still better than disaffected adults, but only just. :p

    1. They are beautiful, aren't they? The 2nd one is really the teen focused one; the other is about the whole family unit. But I've never liked reading about disaffected teens even when I was one myself ;)

  2. I always enjoy your reviews, Melanie. Refreshingly honest and always insightful. And I have a fondness for Quebec writers. Cheers...

    1. Why thanks! I'm glad you find something to appreciate in them - I try to make them more book-talk than review proper. Just my impressions.

  3. I didn't love Twenty-One Cardinals as much as I loved and the birds rained down (and I don't think one could, as the Cardinals just aren't in a good place to be loved!) but I really admired the structure of it, the slipping from voice to voice and how distinct each was, even when at first all those kids seemed one big blur, and the slow realization that everyone knew the secret, that it was more about how they were living with it than about the secret itself. (I've yet to read Fairy Ring...I should do that!)

    1. You're right, it's the ability to hold that secret as a point of the narrative that is admirable. The slow unfolding of the story so that the reader is let in on it as the book goes on.

      And I hope you'll read Fairy Ring soon - it is fascinating.


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