REVIEWS: vol 4, issue 2

Louis Undercover
Written by Franny Britt and illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault; translated by Christelle Morelli and Susan Ouriou (Groundwood Books)

Reviewed by Dory Cerny

It is difficult to find fault with the second collaboration between Montreal dream-team author Fanny Britt and illustrator Isabelle Arsenault. Separately, each woman is a force of nature in her own right, but some kind of beautiful alchemy occurs when they come together to tell a story. Their first, Jane, the Fox and Me (Groundwood Books), won a Governor General’s Literary Award for children’s illustration in its original French, while the English translation garnered Joe Schuster Awards for both text and illustration. 

Like its predecessor, Britt and Arsenault’s new graphic novel, Louis Undercover, is a quietly devastating tale that resolves on a note of hope. Louis is caught in the midst of his parents’ separation, bearing witness to the possibly devastating side of love even as he struggles with his undeclared feelings for the brave and bookish Billie. The reader aches for Louis as he observes his father’s agony at the dissolution of the marriage. “My dad cries,” the book begins, before diving into a tale of a man reduced to rubble by pain and alcohol, an anxious woman, and their two sons—Louis and his little brother, Truffle—who shuttle back and forth between their house in the country (where their father still lives) and the small apartment their mother has rented in the city. 

Relationships lie at the heart of Britt’s story. Each is emotionally resonant—a feat given the author’s restrained text, expertly translated from French by Christelle Morelli and Susan Ouriou, who also handled translation duties on Jane, the Fox and Me. But it is the combination of Britt’s clever, poignant, and unsentimental words and Arsenault’s arresting visuals that truly brings the story to life. Rendering primarily in moody shades of grey and black, Arsenault uses subtle washes of turquoise to denote sadness and memory, while sunshiny yellow pops from the pages featuring Billie and other good things in Louis’s life. A blank stare, a rosy blush, a gleeful pose—these subtle details convey depths of emotion and provide their own narrative.

Lest the story become too bleak, Britt balances scenes of heartache with others of silliness, joy, or tenderness. Truffle belts out James Brown and Everly Brothers songs; the family—briefly reunited—explores New York City; Louis and Truffle nurse an injured raccoon they christen Michael Jackson back to health; Louis watches Billie as she defends younger kids against a bully or sets off on her cool black bicycle at the end of the school day. 

Through Louis’s memories and the trip to New York City, we are also given glimpses of the love shared by his parents and the happiness that the ending hints could be possible again. And despite witnessing his parents’ relationship fall apart, Louis, egged on by his friend Boris, eventually works up the courage to speak to Billie, leaving readers with the sense that all hope is not lost for this damaged boy. As the book suggests, sometimes the greatest act of bravery is to trust someone else with your heart, knowing it can all go wrong.

By Kasia Jaronczyk (Mansfield Press)

Reviewed by Adam Meisner

Two books from the CanLit canon came to mind as I read Kasia Jaronczyk’s short story collection Lemons: Alice Munro’s The Lives of Girls and Women and L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. Both are—in a way—referenced in the book itself. The stories are organized in two parts: the first titled “Girls,” and the second “Women.” And Basia, who features as a principal character throughout the book, has a vivid imagination and pines for a “best friend, like Anne’s Diana.” And yet little of Lemons takes place in the bucolic Canada of either Munro or Montgomery. Instead, Jaronczyk situates most of her stories in communist and post-communist Poland (perhaps the book might also be titled The Lives of Girls and Women in Twentieth-Century Poland or Basia of the Brutalist Apartment Complex). 

So while the young Basia wishes her life to be something like that of Anne Shirley, it usually veers toward the dark, heartbreaking realities more often found in the stories of Munro. Basia struggles to find a best friend, she is molested by her grandfather, and grows up to be a woman who suffers from myasthenia gravis: “the body attacking itself, signals not getting from nerves to muscle.”  Life is not easy, the book tells its readers—though not without folding the briefest humour into its harrowing tales. 

It’s not entirely fair, however, to think of this book simply in relation to what’s come before. Jaronczyk’s stories are stylistically distinct and innovative. This comes out strongly in “The Rug,” in which a young Polish woman, Ala, receives a tense visit from her Canadian-émigré mother-in-law, Magda (Basia’s mother). This story shifts masterfully between Magda and Ala’s narration for a complex, dual portrait. And in “Epidemic (Director’s Cut),” Jaronczyk details a series of scenes in sequence and then deepens the reader’s understanding of those scenes by offering a series of deleted scenes. Jaronczyk shines in being able to simultaneously respect and tease the boundaries of the conventional short story.

My only regret is that Lemons doesn’t offer its readers more. These are satisfying short stories, but I almost wished they’d been reconfigured as a novel to give a fuller arc to Basia’s story. Or, if not that, I wish there’d been a few more stories to give a fuller portrait of Basia’s life—detailing her journey to Canada, for example, or her early forays into becoming a writer. Of course, like Montgomery’s Anne Shirley, it’s entirely possible that Basia won’t end with her first in-print appearance. One can hope that there’s more of her
to come.

Rose and Poe
By Jack Todd (ECW Press)

Reviewed by Margaret Nowaczyk

Jack Todd’s imaginative retelling of The Tempest in the tale of Rose and her son Poe is part magic and part love song to the beauty of New England. In the prologue, the author states that the story was written “to set down the truth for posterity or preparing the visitor for an excursion to a part of this country that may seem like the setting for a dark fairy tale.”  The setting is the imaginary Belle Coeur River county, which borders Canada in the north and is circumscribed by rivers in the other three directions—an imaginary island in the landscape of New England that becomes too real when unseasonal torrential rains flood the county and isolate it from the rest of the world. 

In Shakespeare’s play, we never meet the long-dead Sycorax, but Rose Didelot, her counterpart in Todd’s novel, is very much alive. She too has abilities that border on magical, not the least being the ability to survive on her own as an unwed, teenage mother in the 1950s—a mother to a twelve-toed, twelve-fingered, port-wine-stained baby she names after the author of a poem about a raven. It is her steadfast love for the malformed and intellectually challenged Poe, deemed unlovable by all others, that wields true magic. 

When Poe is accused of a heinous crime against his employer Prosper Thorne’s daughter Miranda, Rose’s maternal magic manifests itself: she will do anything to prove her son innocent. Some of the most sympathetic characters in the book are members of the law profession: the judge, Poe’s defender, and the county sheriff who doggedly pursues and catches Miranda’s true attacker. But the well-educated, middle-aged, white men who decide and administer Rose’s and Poe’s futures seem too good to be true. (Are they meant to contrast with the ruthless big-city-lawyer sharks who ousted Thorne from his law firm?) However, the benevolent legal system and Rose’s mother love cannot protect her and Poe from the furies unleashed in the town, intent on ousting the monster from their midst. 

The diction of both Rose and Poe is uneducated and rough, yet it shows their innate intelligence, kindness, and much-overlooked humanity, for Todd is never patronizing or derisive in his use of dialect. Unfortunately, the dialogue lumbers and clunks at times, especially in the legal proceedings and in Miranda’s recounting of her family’s past—such fluency and lengthy sentences would be impossible in a girl with a crushed throat. 

In his exposition of the landscape, however, Todd leavens this dark tale with literary magic. In the fall, as Poe awaits his court date, “[t]he leaves begin their red-and-gold dance, gliding down in search of a likely place to rot. Drunken hunters come in their pickup trucks. Deer scream and die. The world goes brown and bare.” And later, in the winter, “Belle Coeur hunkers down after the blaze, sullen and contrite under the winter sun, licking its wounds.” But it is in the description of the tempest that Todd reaches his lyrical heights: “Towering black clouds topple the moon, pale sheets of lightning tremble ahead of the first slash of rain that precedes the storm like a harrow preparing the dark earth for planting.” 

The final magic, so undeserved by Belle Coeur’s populace, is Rose’s infinite capacity for forgiveness. And in the end, Poe’s interpretation of what he perceives as proper funerary practices is guaranteed to deliver a needed release after this haunting tale. 

False Friends
By Stephen Cain (BookThug)

Reviewed by Jason Weins

The back cover of Stephen Cain’s False Friends informs us that the title derives from a linguistic term identifying words from different languages that appear to be related, but have substantially different meanings. The title works well in conveying the disjunctive thrust of Cain’s writing, but the reference to friends also alludes to the discrete community that the work appears to address: literary insiders who will “get” much of the humour and references in the book. Most poets who publish in Canada will know on a personal level many of the people who read their work, and here Cain embraces the possibilities offered by such a narrowly
imagined reading community.

The “Notes” at the back of the book provide helpful entranceways to what might at first appear to be difficult poems to access. “Stanzas,” the first section of the book, is “an allusive referential reduction of ‘Rooms’ by Gertrude Stein.” Like Stein’s work, the writing is highly disjunctive and diminishes reference and narrative coherence, and as with Stein’s, we have a sense of continuous present throughout. The poems reject the conventions of the confessional lyric; the one time in the twelve page sequence the first person singular is used, it appears to parody those conventions: “Moonshine mail, collective climax kinky query, dusky, a pose arose, concomitant combing, I sit, epiphanies emerge, really rational.” As this passage illustrates, although lyric subjectivity is eschewed, lyricism is not, as internal rhyme and alliteration are prominent throughout the sequence.

While “Stanzas” engages with the work of a great American modernist, “Mod Cons” rewrites classic poems by Canadian modernist writers like F. R. Scott and Earle Birney. If Scott’s “The Canadian Authors Meet” derided the Canadian Authors Association for being overly colonial, Victorian, and—most egregiously—feminine, Cain inverts things and parodies masculine Canadian modernists, who “are measured for their dirty diction and disinterestedness, / Their zeal for Auden and Frost, and the lengths of their cocks.”

In contrast, “A Co Ver Lights” employs an erasure technique to Birney’s “Vancouver Lights,” with beautiful results: 

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“The Canadian Modernists in Brief” notates in single sentences personal anecdotes relating to modernist Canadian writers from Pratt to Webb: “false friends,” perhaps, for a poet and academic of Cain’s generation. 

The humour here is both literary and popular. The hilarious “Sportstalk” takes clichés from sports interviews and applies them to poetry: “There’s no ‘I’ in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry,” or “Gotta get out there and find your voice.” “Wordwards”—in which Cain takes images from signs and captions them with references to the writing world—will split sides. False Friends situates itself within the experimental poetic tradition through both parody and homage: “Zoom” is a “reverse-homophonic translation of sound poems” by an earlier generation of writers, while “Etc Phrases” consists of ekphrastic translations of bpNichol’s “Allegories.” As such, the “false friends” of the book’s title could also be read as an allusion to the writers of this tradition that Cain’s book extends, and perhaps to an anxiety about certain influences. 

Posted on December 7, 2017 .