The Silent Rooms / Anne Hebert; translated from the French by Kathy Mezei.
Don Mills, ON: Musson, c1974. (orig. pub. in French in 1958).
A fine example of the Quebec Gothic, as I like to think of it, this is a fairy-tale like story of Catherine -- motherless, eldest daughter of a stern and distant father, who marries into a decadent family of local nobility.
Her new husband has sister issues, and seems to hate women and the very idea of sex. He takes Catherine to Paris, where they stay sealed inside their two little wooden rooms, never going out. Catherine gets paler and more and more bored, stitching at her needlework all day like a princess in a tower. Michel thinks she looks so beautiful when pale and thin that he mutters "this woman is so beautiful I'd like to drown her". So much for happily ever after.
When Michel's sister Lia shows up, having broken off her own love affair, the obsessive sibling dynamic arises again. The two of them cut Catherine out, treating her like a servant to supply their needs while remaining silent and undemanding. But eventually, Catherine rebels by getting very sick -- depression and lethargy sentence her to bed. The doctor recommends a change of scene -- impossible. But Catherine finds a backbone, and leaves, accompanied by their maid, who always backs the strongest player.
The rest of the story takes place in a small seaside town in France in which Catherine recuperates and determines what to do with herself. Will she find freedom, happiness, self-determination? This brief story looks at all of that in its fable-like structure. It's not a long or deeply detailed story, rather it moves lightly among archetypes and characterizations. It reminds me somewhat of Marie Claire Blais' Tete Blanche, in the main male character's neurotic behaviour: I didn't much like either of these characters!
But I found this a hypnotic read, with the writing weaving a kind of spell that I couldn't look away from until I finished it, in one sitting. It was a intriguing look at a Cinderella who becomes a Rapunzel or perhaps a Sleeping Beauty, awoken by a huntsman rather than a prince.