by Daniel Grenier
Le Quartanier, 2015
L’année la plus longue—Daniel Grenier’s first novel following an initial collection of short stories, also published by Le Quartanier—is impressive both in scope and ambition. The action (because, despite the clear literary merits of this novel, there is action and plenty of it) revolves around three men: Thomas Langlois (who, growing up in Tennessee, has been given a French name he is barely able to pronounce), his father Albert (“Al-bear”), and their ancestor and contemporary Aimé.
The novel opens with a deportation on the Ohio River in 1838. The first part then bounces around in time in Chattanooga, Tennessee (1987, 1994, 1998) before moving on to a second and then a final part that takes us from 1864 to 1760 to 1863, to Newport, Montreal, Quebec City, Philadelphia, Sainte-Anne-des-Monts, and Kansas. There are lots of stops in between, with Grenier hitting the sweet spot of allowing the reader to savour the excellent writing of the present moment while turning pages with relish to find out what happens next.
This is the story of an “American family as long and as old as the Mason-Dixon line.” It is also, even more so, the story of the Quebec branch of the family tree, changing shape and moving off in different directions, with a dollop of magical realism thrown in for good measure. It is a tale of burned bridges and lost family ties, of belonging and not, of personal tragedies and major world events, of too many parallel stories to list here but not too many to lose track of, all combined in a satisfying blend of the everyday and the enchanting.
The novel boasts a long list of laudable, distinguishing characteristics. At times, Grenier’s style seems similar to that of Eric Dupont in his desire to combine the characters and affairs of rural Quebec with international events, particularly American ones. And, at times, the smorgasbord of characters and jumps in time remind me of Catherine Leroux’s La marche en forêt. But the style is, of course, entirely of Grenier’s own making.
Its most distinguishing feature is probably the narrative “we” as the story is “narrated by us and understood through the filter of our distant, speculative imaginations […] from the warmth of our homes on the shores of the St. Lawrence, as winter sets in and the smoke rising from the factories turns opaque in the steel-blue sky.”
Most of all, though, L’année la plus longue is the “story of a man who couldn’t grow old.” His name is Aimé.
“In conditions difficult to describe, difficult to imagine for those of us comfortably seated in our armchairs, it was doubtless in suffering and in fear, in slurry or in hay, that he was born, under the protection and the yoke of the occupying army, behind an almost closed door that creaked and under the Union Jack that flapped with every gust of wind from the fortress’s highest tower.”
Aimé was born on February 29, making him a Leaper and, later, the founding member of the Order of the Twentyniners. In 1925, he looks like he’s just turned forty when, in fact, he has been around for over a century and a half. Because he only ages on his actual birthday—every four years. He is one of those “who were born in the midst of a strange time vortex, who were special by definition, whom time did not absorb in the same way.” Or, as another character puts it: “Stories from way back have it that this extra day every four years, desired by men but rejected by God, is a portal to the other world.”
But make no mistake: this is not science fiction. Here, the story is not a flimsy excuse for “what if?” scenarios and the exploration of parallel worlds. In this novel, the root of the narrative—the 29th day of February that makes it possible for Aimé to fight in the American Civil War, to discuss whether sound will come soon to motion pictures, and to board a flight to Europe at JFK—might be magical, but Grenier is first and foremost a storyteller, bringing to life the poetry of the everyday in a story that is intricately put together without ever appearing convoluted or contrived.
The magical realism is put to good use, adding warmth and depth to a busy storyline and transforming an ambitious plot that takes in a swath of North America stretching from the Gaspé Peninsula to Tennessee into a saga of epic proportions, based around three mountain ranges: the Great Smokies, the Alleghenies, and the Chic-Chocs.
There is magic at work here, but it is largely in the writing. It is images of a dog being dropped from a window that stay with us. Of burning crosses and masked faces, people walking around with radioactive radium watches, rags that cling to the body “like a second skin, dirty and diseased,” a woman looking up, a “smile of clothespins in her mouth,” the sound of a passing train exploding in a “symphony of metal and steam.”
The writing shines when Aimé looks back on the American Civil War from Philadelphia in 1893:
“He described how the sun, filtering through the long clouds of grey rain, had given him the impression that it was all over, that everyone would go home now, scarred but alive, that it had made him wrongly believe the horror was over an incalculable number of times. But it was inevitable; he couldn’t stop thinking it. He explained how he had thought of his mother, whom he had never known, but whom he liked to imagine telling him goodbye with silent tears, telling him goodbye near to the fence they would have built together to protect the hens from the foxes and the coyotes. He didn’t think of his wife, or the woman he loved, or a sometime lover he would have left behind, but of a mother who would have agreed to let him go off to war, him and his illusions of heroism and courage, crying silently with stoical eyes. […] Aimé described how, once the battle had started, it took on its own living form, began to have its own life, with an ecology, a geology, and an unpredictable breath, sometimes panting, sometimes short, sometimes strangely at ease.”
There are mentions of Louis-Joseph Papineau, Benedict Arnold, Daniel Morgan, and William Randolph Hearst, cameos even from characters created by other Quebec novelists. There are the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, Quebec’s ice storm of 1998. And there is the gasp of satisfaction that comes when a narrative thread from page 35 is picked up and tied in a tight, satisfying knot on page 329.
This is a fine story, well told. What more could we ask for?
Review by Peter McCambridge