La chair de Clémentine

by Vincent Brault

Héliotrope, 2017

Vincent Brault’s second novel (coming on the back of Le cadavre de Kowalksi, which we loved and reviewed here) is just as original as his début. It begins with Gustave, the main character we will follow throughout. It’s 0°C—the temperature drops from chapter to chapter until we reach a chilly -51°C for the finale—and Gustave is at school. He stands up from his desk, walks across the classroom, and opens the door, “not knowing where he had to go, or why he had to go, but go he did.”

Sentences like this are classic Brault. The parallels with Kowalski are evident, and welcome, given the success of the first novel.

“The body dived down headfirst, going I don’t know where. But I let it go. I had confidence. Or rather, I had no confidence at all. I had neither hopes nor fears. No desires or aversions. I was bored, that was all. Or rather, I wasn’t bored at all. It was dark. It was silent.”

This paragraph from Kowalksi, then, would be equally at home in Clémentine. The imagery in both books is by turns playful and dark, never short of quirky. The narrator builds his story in matter-of-fact layers, just another brick in the wall no matter how odd it might first appear, until, that is, he doubles back and throws the whole exercise into question, stepping aside from the narrative entirely or undermining and poking fun at his characters, exploiting the ironic distance between them and the narrative to full—usually comic, but often cruel—effect.

Gustave is on his way to another classroom, where a little girl called Rose has gone deathly pale.

“It was as if her belly button had been slashed open and all the blood in her body was oozing out of the hole.”

Rose is dying a horrible death and some strange powers of attraction appear to have drawn her to Gustave. Here in the first chapter, blood is everywhere, Gustave holding Rose in his arms, Rose holding Gustave in hers, until the blood congeals, forming a blackish crust around their embrace.

It seems strange to say it, but Clémentine is darker than Kowalski, a novel that itself contained a zombie. Clémentine flirts with horror, most memorably in a scene towards the end when Gustave’s father, Florent, explains how Gustave came into the world. “It was too much. Much too much. It was madness.”

All year round, Gustave eats nothing but cold food. He’s always burning up, constantly too warm. In summer he hides away in his basement, cranks up the air conditioning, and wraps himself in a wet sheet so he can get to sleep. Fall is welcomed like a gift, a chance to go swimming in lakes and rivers and wait for winter to come. In short, “he loved the cold, dammit, like a heroin addict loves heroin.”

La chair de Clémentine is at its best when fleshing out this world of Brault’s imagination. The details are to be savoured, as logical as they are strange and memorable. The unfolding of the plot is smooth and well thought-out, but perhaps less exceptional than the rest, following the well-trodden path of so many thrillers before it until the details (unique though they are to this short novel) are revealed to the reader, the particularity of the story somehow let down by the genre used to tell it.

There is much to enjoy along the way, though. Charlotte follows in Rose’s footsteps, then Gustave is “sucked into the manager’s office as though through an airplane’s shattered window.” Dominic, the call centre supervisor, is next to die in his arms. Gustave has just turned nineteen and for the third time the doctors are having to tear him away from a dead body he’s clutching, a series of coincidences that attracts the attention of Marcel, a strangely aggressive detective who’s determined to get to the root of the problem for reasons that might be personal as much as professional.

Laconic, cinematic descriptions advance the plot in this world of dank basements, exploding lightbulbs, dead vermin, and frostbite. Of sordid diners and ketchup-stained fingers. Winter and the cold are all-pervading; windows are inevitably covered in snow. This is the type of novel in which fridges are depressingly empty but for “two slices of dry bread and what remained of a jar of strawberry jam,” trees are bare, and wild roses “flowerless, all thorns.”

In all, it feels like a romp, a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously. The tone is often lighthearted and irreverent, the descriptions anything but dry or standard, always closer to the unexpected and even the inappropriate. A hospital death, for example, is described as follows:

“The train had already taken him away, the monitor producing nothing but a single biiiiiiiiip.”

Given the nature of this world, of the characters, of the cruel narrator, it must come as no surprise that things go from bad to worse for poor Gustave as the weather deteriorates and the temperature drops. We shift from black comedy to farce to horror, less in search of an explanation to justify it all than eager to see what Brault will come up with next.

PETINF14-QuebecReads-Favicon-32x32Review by Peter McCambridge