Suzanne / Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette; translated from the French by Rhonda Mullins.
Toronto : Coach House Books, 2017.
Suzanne is the fictionalized life story of the author's maternal grandmother, a woman she never knew.
Curious about this poet/painter who was involved with Quebec's Les Automatistes in the 40s, who lived in Europe, and then in New York, who was involved in many artistic and social movements along the way (think the Great Depression, Quebec's Quiet Revolution, women's liberation, and the American civil rights movement for starters), Barbeau-Lavalette hired a private detective to track down the facts of her grandmother's life.
And then she wrote a marvellous, compassionate novel about her, and the repercussions of the decision to leave her small children behind and pursue her independent artistic life.
The novel ranges over about 85 years, most of Suzanne's life span. It builds a character and a background for this intelligent and ambitious, restless and art-driven woman. Once it comes to her early marriage and children, and the wandering wastrel of a husband who has burdened her in this manner, it becomes easy to trace the lines of why she would have walked out on this family - even as she tried to regain a relationship with her young daughter some years later.
Suzanne seems to be a true Bohemian, someone limited by the era she was growing up within. The 30s and 40s, particularly in Quebec, were not fruitful with opportunities for a woman more interested in thinking and art-making than in domesticity.
I thought that this novel was rich with character, with understanding, despite the effect on the author's family of the real-life decisions made by Suzanne. There is a real sense of compassion for this character, and a desire to flesh out this life that the author never really knew.
I loved reading about Suzanne in the midst of all these vital moments in history, ones she was actually involved in. She was a troubled and lonely woman at times, yet she still had that iron core that led her to do what she really wished to. I was drawn in and mesmerized by her. Once I started this book I could hardly put it down; though the writing is straightforward and even plain at times, the richness of Suzanne's experience and the author's attention to telling details made this a page turner for me.
Really highly recommended for a great overview of a woman's life in the 20th century, with a focus on Quebec's shifting society during the mid-century years.