Toronto: Dundurn, c1999.
It's strange how sometimes you have a book sitting on your shelf quietly for many years, and when you finally take it down you realize it had this beautiful life going on inside it all the time, only you didn't know it.
Memoria is this kind of book. I decided to read it for Women in Translation Month simply because it had been on my shelf for a while. I started the first few pages to see if I'd like it, and I just kept going. The writing is dreamy, engaging, insightful. Dupre sees things with an honest and poetic eye that caught my interest right away.
The book, on the surface of it, is the story of Emma Villeray, a translator living in Montreal whose partner of 10 years, Jerome, has just left her to move to South America. We don't meet him, we only have her recollections of him -- but she is speaking to him throughout, addressing him as 'you'. It tracks her journey from shock and loss to a new and totally different life direction than she would have had with him.
It's about the outwardly small but inwardly huge steps she takes to keep on with her life. She moves from their apartment, buying a house even if she is all alone now. She reconnects with her best friend, and through her meets a new lover, Vincent, and has to learn to trust a new relationship. She becomes friends with the previous owner of her house, Madame Girard, who is a widow and dealing with harsher loss than Emma's own. And she deals with the repercussions of her sister's disappearance as a teen, something that has always affected her remaining family. All of these strands of loss combine, sink lower, and then rise in a beautiful story of both loss and the nature of things to get better, of how hope is restored and new life begins again.
I loved the fragmentary structure of the book and how it reflects Emma's memories rising up as discrete life moments, with brief chapters. She recollects scenes of her life with Jerome, events from her childhood, her interior life, and current daily life, as she rebuilds. The book is split into four sections, each called a 'song', and the book is kind of like a fugue, all these lines of her life harmonizing and repeating.
The support of the women in Emma's life is wonderfully drawn - from her own mother to her best friend Benedicte, her new friend Madame Girard, her neighbour Rosa, even Jerome's ex-wife - all are complex and lovely characters. This was a fantastic read, a quiet, introspective and yet visual story that captures fleeting images and emotions.
I did find the focus on Emma's finding new reasons for living in a new relationship and mothering a bit disappointing in a way; where's the strong independent woman making it on her own? But within this story Emma's choices do make her strong, do give her her own voice once more. She becomes more fully herself by going through this emotional upheaval, and at the end the reader is hoping for her future happiness as much as she is.
I'm so glad I've finally discovered Emma, and Louise Dupre's wonderful style. So glad that I had the push to finally take this down from the shelf.
I'll finish with a couple of quotes that show how Emma copes with her losses, and yet has something within that doesn't let her completely despair.
In my life, the past forms tiny islands I swim around, sometimes until I'm utterly exhausted. But I'm swimming, not drowning.
When my own way of seeing returned, I looked at the world differently. I could now see through things, even the bugs dangling from the thread of my thoughts.
I was observing them as I used to observe Grandmama making quilts, those hundreds of squares she patiently sewed together with her elderly fingers, the scraps of her life. She would tell the story of times past, over there Mama's dress, over here Uncle Jean's coat. I never tired of watching her work. I was already learning to turn a lot of discarded pieces into a single life.