La Chambre verte

by Martine Desjardins

Alto, 2015

Before we begin: “In the name of the Dollar, and of the Cent, and of the Holy Economy.” Amen.

It’s not easy growing up in a household obsessed with money. There are plenty of life lessons to be learned. You tend to learn to count before you can talk, for one thing. Then the first word your mother teaches you is “one.” And the second is… “two.” After that, there’s no stopping you. There are eyes to be counted, then hands, fingers, the bars on your crib, stairs, and the keys on your mom’s key chain (keys to fit the house’s 77 locks, all the better to protect the family’s jealously guarded fortune). You are one, your parents are two (Louis-Dollard and Estelle), your aunts are three (Morula, Gastrula, and Blastula). Who needs nouns and adjectives when everything can be expressed using numbers?

But then one day, you—Vincent, the book’s hero—begin to talk for real, a feat you manage after your third birthday. But before you lose yourself in mindless babbling and start to ask too many (potentially awkward) questions, your mother is quick to allow you no more than twenty words a day with which to express yourself. “Speech is silver, silence is golden,” she says.

Friends are an extravagance that are not to be indulged in: just think of all the gifts and snacks to be handed out. So games of hide and seek are played out alone. You are taught to keep yourself clean: just think how much a hospital visit might cost. You are taught to tidy your room and sweep the floor, to keep your distance from others (and their germs!), to keep your elbows off the table (so as not to wear out your sweaters).

You are not taught how to love or how to be a good person in a home where charity is a bad word, gifts between family members are taken to be bribes, and quarters are exchanged as gifts for a 25th wedding anniversary. Because for your parents, money is only good for piling up, while their neglected house falls in around them.

And it is in fact the neglected house that tells your story, the narrator of an original novel that makes up in imagination what it lacks in tight plot development.

This is the tale not just of Vincent and his proposed marriage to the enigmatic Penny Sterling (to further the family fortune, naturally), but of a family’s obsession with money that stretches back to the grandfather, Prosper, who built the green room, a secret underground vault that houses the family fortune.

If there is a criticism it is that Martine Desjardins is determined to work in every possible money-related expression (although that is, of course, part of the fun) and that a few scenes in the middle of the book seem to serve only to drive home the point that the Delorme family is penny-pinching and cruel rather than advance proceedings. But a delicious twist near the end casts many of them in a new light and the reader can better appreciate them, leaving us with the impression of having devoured a delightfully dark and unsettling story that’s like nothing else you’ll read this year. We put it down surer than ever that money is the root of all evil.

PETINF14-QuebecReads-Favicon-32x32Review by Peter McCambridge