The Tin Flute / Gabrielle Roy; translated from the French by Alan Brown.
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1989, c1945.
I finally picked up this classic Canadian novel a few weeks ago. Gabrielle Roy is a favourite author of mine but I'd never read this one, a story of a family living in poverty in St Henri right around the start of WWII.
It read very quickly, though I did find it a lot more event driven than most of Roy's other novels I've read. And honestly, quite a bit more boring because of it. Her other works are more nostalgic tales of the French in Manitoba (based in her own childhood) and I think that connection makes them more compelling for me.
However! On to this book. It's set in the slums of St Henri, an area of Montreal that is now quite trendy and gentrified. When I lived in Montreal in the 90s, it was still kind of sketchy, but growing more gentrified each year. And now even Pointe St Charles right next door (even more sketchy) is experiencing the same. So reading about the reality of life in the 40s was fascinating. The characters walk the streets, all named, so I could follow them in my head. If you read this and don't know the area at all, I would suggest getting a map, as it's easy to follow them, and discover how small the distances are between streets that are slums and ones that are more respectable. At one point, one of the young men walks up to Westmount, to see the big houses and go to the lookout. I know that he walked right past my old apartment to get there, too. I loved that sense of connection.
The story opens with Florentine Lacasse exhausted at her job serving at a busy deli counter at the Five and Ten. She's met a young man there, Jean Levesque, who is different and who appeals to her. And to her longing to escape her constrained life of poverty and this crappy job that she must work to support her family. Her father is a dreamer who is constantly losing jobs and her mother just keeps having children. Florentine, as the oldest, contributes the bulk of the family income. But she just wishes that she could catch a break.
She and Jean begin a troubled relationship, an angry one with neither of them fully trusting the other. And he is looking beyond St Henri, even when he meets Florentine, which she doesn't know. As it turns out, his friend Emmanuel meets Florentine with him one day, and instantly falls for her himself. Emmanuel is from a more middle-class area of St Henri, though, and foresees many family problems with this crush.
These restless and demanding young lives are also shaped by the war, which reaches into St Henri to take many of the men who don't have any other options, despite their resistance to an "English" war. But the army pays well, and it means that they can support a family, so it's hard to say no.
But the book is not all about these three younger people. It also delves into the life and emotions of Florentine's parents. Azarius is always waiting for the next big thing, for their big break, and he never can quite achieve it. He's always dreaming, and always frustrated at having to work for other people. Rose-Anna, meanwhile, is the kind of matriarch who is long-suffering, hard-working, too proud to ask for help, and the emotional cornerstone of the family. She keeps them all going despite her many disappointments and responsibilities. And her family is from the country; there's a fine description of urban vs rural between the two.
So with all the longings, sadness, ambition, anger and stifled rage at poverty, there's a strong emotional drive to the story. The way it is told is straightforward and linear, and can be a little slow moving, despite the shocking and scandalous events that are also shared in a rather matter-of-fact way. The daily struggle of counting change, trying to calculate expenses, weighing food vs. clothing, moving to smaller and smaller lodgings despite a growing family - it is all there. Their last apartment alongside the train station is covered in soot, and noisy, but Rose-Anna resigns herself to it, as long as it provides a home for her family.
Florentine finds her salvation, so to speak, not through a new business venture or her own ambition, but the traditional way, through an advantageous marriage. But even that begins in shadow, as she keeps secrets from her new husband and allows him to think romantic inclination led her to accept his proposal. No motivations are clear in this story, they are all tangled up with survival, money, and longing. It's a deeply complex story that grows on you; I think about it more now than while reading it. It's a picture of how systemic poverty affects lives, drawn with detail and realism. And so an important read, even if a little slow going at times.