Les maisons

by Fanny Britt

Cheval d’août, 2015

Fanny Britt is a well-known figure in the Quebec literary world, having written or translated some thirty plays, authored children’s literature and an essay on motherhood, and garnered many awards along the way. She continues to shine with Les maisons, her first novel, longlisted for the Prix des libraires du Québec 2016 and shortlisted for the Prix littéraire France-Québec 2016.

The protagonist and narrator of the novel, Tessa, lives in present-day Montreal with her partner, Jim, and their three young sons. Now thirty-seven, she has given up a career as a classical singer and works as a real estate agent, which gives her an inside view of the traumatic situations prompting people to buy and sell houses. She discovers that a house she has just listed is owned by her first love, Francis, who vanished seventeen years ago. He asks her to meet him for a drink that Friday. The narrative is propelled by their date.

There are so many questions about Tessa at the outset. Why did she forgo her singing career? Why does she have an abysmal self-image? Why does she feel discontented when she seems to have such a good life? Why on earth would she consider leaving a family she loves for someone who left her so long ago?

In Les maisons, Fanny Britt develops a complex character who is struggling with her inner demons. When Tessa’s partner calls home one evening to ask her how she and the boys are doing, she wonders, “How do I tell him . . . that the only one here who’s impossible is me?”

Yet reading this novel is much like listening to good blues. Tessa’s malaise is real and rooted in the everyday; the themes are serious―loss, infidelity, self-esteem, family, nonconformity. But the aesthetics of the work make for a lightness, and the overall effect is uplifting.

The novel is divided into seven chapters that weave between past and present, laying and building on the foundation of Tessa’s character. The reader is given glimpses of her upbringing by a single, punk mom in Montreal, her teen years dogged by self-doubt, the turning points―which she calls “turn of the century”―then her early relationship with Jim, and her leap into motherhood.

The central metaphor of the house is used to good effect. Houses are a reflection and an extension of us, their façade and interior representing our outer image and inner selves. Not surprisingly, Tessa’s house is somewhat cluttered and somber. The basement is full of boxes of unused clothing. “The dining room is enveloped in darkness. The table is never entirely cleared. . . We don’t have a fireplace,” says Tessa, “but I . . . find the darkness strangely friendly. This darkness does not fear my own.”

Much of the action takes place in Tessa’s mind, through memories, fantasies, and reflections. Fanny Britt has brought all her playwriting talents to bear in creating nuanced internal monologues. When Tessa considers telling her mother about Francis and emotion is running high, the stream of consciousness is more like a rapid than a flow:

“Maman, I’m going to see my old boyfriend. . . I’m going to meet him in front of Lenny’s at twelve-thirty, then I’ll follow him into the city, to a hotel room no doubt, at first I thought we’d do it in the car, but I remembered that we’re adults now, that he’ll soon be forty-five. People forty-five don’t mess around in cars, they get a hotel room . . . so I’ll follow him to a hotel room, the way this love has followed me and filled me and defined me for a very long time―yes, Maman, defined me, even though I never told you about it, and you don’t know his name. . .”

Much of the novel is about the writing: the terse dialogues rich in subtext, abundant hyperbole that lightens the tone, rhythmic syntax, unpunctuated seriation, multi-word compounds, and strong images. There is music both in the writing and outside of it. The narrator, a singer partnered with a trombone player, mentions an eclectic list of singers, songwriters, and composers that includes Joan Jett, Handel, Léo Ferré, Eddie Vedder, John Lennon, Buddy Holly, France Gall, Deee-Lite, Bob Marley, Serge Reggiani, Claudio Monteverdi, Henry Purcell, Ana Sophie von Otter, and, of course, Leonard Cohen (Lenny’s).

Back to the central metaphor and title. The houses in Les maisons also reflect the social fabric of the city. Thinking back to her childhood, Tessa says, “I wondered why my mother’s friends had such nice houses while we lived in a four-room apartment on St-Viateur above a purse store.” As a teen, she ventures west of Atwater into the Anglophone world when she is invited to a party at a “huge fucking mansion of a house” in Westmount. As an adult, she and Jim move into an apartment on the Plateau “which still exuded that mix of the student, working, and middle classes.”

Where does Tessa’s inner journey take her in the end? Does her house become lighter and breezier? Does her transformation, like a good renovation, respect her essential character? You’ll have to read Les maisons to find out. And that would be time well spent.

PETINF14-QuebecReads-Favicon-32x32Review by Elaine Kennedy