To end the year on a high note, we asked 10 local writers to tell us about a Quebec novel and a foreign novel that they loved.
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Impromptu by Catherine Mavrikakis. This novella depicts the fascination of a young intellectual trained in Quebec in the 1980s for a teacher of German origin who, in her eyes, embodies “high culture”. No need to evolve in the academic world, thatImpromptu portrayed with a fine humor, to appreciate this very successful short novel, of an erudition which never weighs down the story. The slightly runny tone is absolutely perfect!
Where are you, wonderful world by Sally Rooney. I had a huge crush on the television adaptation of Sally Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, and there I am falling over his third novel, which translates the existential anxieties and the loves of young millennials in Ireland with overwhelming generosity. The sober, tender, hyper-realistic writing, which breaks down everyday gestures in a fine analysis of our time, brings us into the intimacy of these young people as rarely. Sally Rooney is a great author.
Sailors can’t swim, by Dominique Scali. This is the most compelling, haunting, and beautifully written novel I have had the pleasure of reading in a long time. I dog-eared an incalculable number of pages so as not to lose the numerous passages so finely turned that I would have made knick-knacks out of them. And I lived with regret each exit of the track of the characters. If I was abandoned on a lost island with only one book to survive, it is with Scali that I would leave, without hesitation. I would die of old age long before I died of boredom.
I go to the essay, I cheat a little: the Deborah Levy trilogy which begins with What I don’t want to know, trilogy that I buy, lend and suggest to everyone. Riding her electric bike to reach the heights of her London apartment where she lives with her daughters, Levy reflects on Africa, life, women, while dreaming of finding the perfect writing shed to work in peace. It is that she would need, like so many of us, a little corner of her own to exist and flourish outside of everything that everyday life expects of her. Levy has a fabulous calming power over me.
I was able to read quite closely The white shadows by Dominique Fortier. The subject of this novel really matters little. What matters, however, is this lunar writing, uniformly grey, strangely gloomy and yet at times breathtakingly beautiful, as if something in this ghostly and, so to speak, buried, airless speech was struggling. in order to be reborn, sought to pierce the earth which covers it, in order in the end to rise up to the day. We traverse with a kind of amazement these pages luminously darkened with white shadows (words), this world hollowed out by deep, nocturnal valleys (thought), closed in on itself by high impassable peaks (sensitivity), this globe riddled with incandescent projectiles (the talent) fallen from the sky, or in any case from outside worlds. A great little book, moreover very judiciously registered this fall as a finalist for the award of the Governor General of Canada.
I reread this month with the same pleasure as when it was published in 2008 the beautiful and very joyful book by Julian Barnes, Nothing to fear. I’m still amazed that death, with all its known and unknown drawbacks, can be the subject of such an amusing book. At any rate, that is what Mr. Barnes applies himself to in his entirely English way, and by resorting to that humor so deliciously serious and mocking, placid and playful, humble and erudite, of which only a man born in the country of King Charles III is capable. My favorite phrase from this marvelous book? I don’t believe in God, but I miss him. This sums up quite well, it seems to me, the tone and tenor of the thesis defended in these unforgettable and so soothing pages. Oh, and there is also this one, much less cheerful, but infinitely true: The great tragedy of life is not that men perish, but that they cease to love.
As far as Quebec literature is concerned, I was particularly charmed by the most recent collection of short stories by Gilles Archambault, My beginnings in eternity. We know well and we easily recognize the tone, the little music of this tenor of the brief narrative genre, tinged with melancholy and self-mockery. We also know his favorite themes, which he knows how to revisit with invention, each time digging the furrow a little deeper: the years go by and never come back; life often disappoints us and death awaits us at the end of the road… From this thirty very short short stories (some are just a page, a page and a half), I retain the virtuosity of a great master in great form, in possession of its considerable means.
In the department of the foreign novel, I really appreciated Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson, writer and photographer of Ghanaian origin, based in London. The beginnings may seem trivial, conventional: two young Londoners, a photographer and a dancer, blacks in a land of whites, gradually fall in love with each other when perhaps they shouldn’t. Without ever insisting unduly (without darkening the line, dare I say), the novelist illustrates how racial discrimination colors every moment of the lives of his characters, how they cannot ignore it, how they are constantly sent back to color of their skin, what it represents in the eyes of others, what it implies for their survival.
This summer, by a coincidence impossible to explain, I found myself with The torrent of Anne Hébert in the hands. And re-read it with great admiration. It’s a short text on filiation (a rather violent mother-son relationship), on the invisible bonds that unite us and cross us through heredity. As if we didn’t really fall very far from our parents and from a path traced by those who preceded us. Both beautiful and disturbing. We don’t redo each other so much…
Still echoing, many years after starting it on Christmas morning, The road by Cormac McCarthy still haunts me. The story of a father and his child trying to survive after the end of the world. Essential gestures of survival, contrary to our rich and narcissistic era. The happy marriage of beauty and human horror. And which makes so much sense especially that we have been told of the imminent end of the world (warming and climatic disasters) for several years.
I loved radio garden by Charlotte Biron. This is the story of a young doctoral student who is diagnosed with cancer a few days before starting her studies. What makes this book stand out is the writing style. I have never read a book that so perfectly captures the feelings of anxiety and depression and estrangement from everyone around you. The narrator is brought back to reality by listening to female intellectuals speak on the radio.
your mother is a witch by Rivka Galchen. This book is based on the life of Johannes Kepler’s mother, who was accused of witchcraft in 1618. Galchen captures the absurd and terrifying mania of witch purges. She also details the practical difficulties of being suspected of witchcraft. And, also, she manages to fill the book with humor, especially during the trials themselves, which seem straight out of Monty Python.
Chickweed by Marie-Helene Voyer. It is a poetic work that reads like a story. The author’s voice is both soft and harsh. A singular and unforgettable pen. A great voice, carried by the winds of the St. Lawrence River.
The birds by Tarjei Vesaas. With great finesse and just as much tenderness, the Norwegian author manages to immerse us in the singular and magnificent head of Matthis, a deficient man.
Louise Tremblay d’Essiambre
For the Quebec novel, I would go with What if that was happiness? by Francine Ruel. This book is not recent, I agree, but I really liked it. Funny, sincere, endearing and so realistic, it will remain in my library so that I can reread it as often as I want. It’s a cure for a guaranteed good mood. Him and the two other volumes that followed.
As for my most recent crush, it dates from last summer, and I still haven’t finished it. It is Changing flower water by French author Valérie Perrin. This novel is a great reading pleasure to be savored in very small bites to savor each page. It’s been a long time since I’ve experienced the simple yet satisfying pleasure of letting someone else’s words overwhelm me.
When I say nothing I still think by Camille Readman Prud’homme is not a novel, but it is the Quebec book which, this year, delighted me the most. I had been waiting for it for a long time, this poetry so lively and playful which questions on each page the adventure of speech, the concrete movement of thought, the enigma of the ordinary. The book is published by one of my favorite publishers, L’Oie de Cravan.
The Plot Against America by Phillip Roth. I have only just met this American master of autofiction in my life as a reader, and it is a great shock. The novel is set in a parallel universe, where the United States, led by a Charles Lindbergh transformed into a populist president, refuses to engage in the Second World War. Through the eyes of a nine-year-old Philip, we helplessly witness the dangers that threaten American democracy and in particular its Jewish minority.
My Quebec favorite of the last few months is the novel Mukbang, by Fanie Demeule. During the first thirty or forty pages, I was not convinced: it looked like a novel that denounces without much originality the dependence of young people on certain insignificant influencers… and suddenly, the story takes a turn utterly unexpected, gradually becoming a mystery drama, then vaguely fantastical, then downright horrifying, with astonishing and daring symbolic ramifications. A unique novel, fascinating, which transports us to very dark areas.
On the foreign side, it’s the novel Cheetah by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, published in 1958. It is a book that tells the annexation of Sicily by Italy in 1861 from the point of view of a nobleman who sees his whole world turned upside down. It is not only an instructive historical novel, but also a lucid psychological and social reflection of Sicily and its inhabitants, who have always been conquered by other peoples. Very solid.
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20 inspiring reading suggestions from our writers
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