by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette
Marchand de feuilles, 2015
Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette didn’t know her grandmother on her mother’s side. The first time she met her, Anaïs—the novel’s narrator—was one hour old. Her grandmother, Suzanne, hadn’t seen her daughter in 27 years. The next time she saw her, Anaïs was 10 years old. And the third and final time, she was 26.
The novel is a largely fictionalized biography of her grandmother’s life, an account of a life in which there are a lot of blanks to be filled in. And filled in they are, in the most beautiful prose, with the help of letters, poems, and newspaper clippings.
Early on in the book, Anaïs and her mother set out to meet the Suzanne who stood alongside Borduas, Gauvreau, and Riopelle as they signed Refus global. They are “archaeologists of an opaque life,” the narrator beginning her journey, her exploration, by addressing her grandmother directly: the entire book is narrated in the second person.
“It wasn’t until you died that I begin to be interested in you,” she writes. “For the ghost to become a woman. I still don’t love you.”
And then, the clincher: “But wait for me. I’m coming.”
And so the exploration begins. The early years, 1930-1946, Suzanne spent growing up in Ottawa. The depression (“Now you would sleep piled up on top of each other, secrets evaporated and odours entangled.”). No more gas for the motor cars to run on. People “full of emptiness,” ladies who smell of burned caramel. Then on to study in Montreal. Swept along by the current. Feeling no longer an island, now as though she belongs to a whole country. Perhaps.
She begins to write poetry. Asks Marcel Barbeau to move in with her. Then “on June 7, 1948, you marry Marcel Barbeau in the parish of Saint-Philippe. You are twenty years old, and you become Suzanne Barbeau.”
It’s harder than it looks, bringing biography into the realm of literature, making sure that the dates and the facts don’t read like Wikipedia entries (a feat that Eric Plamondon, a very different writer, pulls off in his 1984 trilogy, a very different series of books). But we’re in good hands, safe hands. Poetry is never far away (“You step closer to him, your breaths touch”). There is beauty in every description:
“Your little boy is called François and he has a soft belly. You put your cheeks against it and run them across it, then your lips, then your whole face. That body becomes your country; that smell, your oxygen; all the little hollows—belly button, dimples, the creases in his skin—become your refuge, your trenches. You melt and spread yourself whole and sweet across your baby’s warm body.”
And history is never far away either.
“You, too, agree to sign the Refus global. Out of a desire to belong, perhaps. Because you want to feel the full effects of it all, like them. To become a true French Canadian. To go against your family. To find another one. To break down walls like Hilda Strike. That’s why you decide to sign.”
Enough of events, though, and back to the writing. Because like many a Marchand de feuilles book, it’s all about the writing. And the writing shines the brightest when at its simplest. A new mother is “swollen with milk and laden with a new power and vulnerability.” While New York City is:
“A crash of windows. One, then ten, then hundreds.
Harlem boils over, a river of naphtha. The city is in flames.”
There are parallels between family history and Canadian history, between family and the world of art. And it’s hard not to compare the writing to the act of painting. Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette’s creation is always easy on the eye, short sentences adding to the effect in successive layers. Because this exquisite novel is a tribute to beauty, to creation, to life itself. Vulnerable and magnificent and heartfelt, all at once.
Review by Peter McCambridge