Québecoise fable charms reader

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April 22, 2013

The Douglas Notebooks
By Christine Eddie, translated by Sheila Fischman
Goose Lane Press, 178 pages,  $19.95

Reviewed by Arleen Paré

Charming is the word. The Douglas Notebooks is a charming story captured in a small, charming book. Fable-like and bitter-sweet, the narrative ends on page 160; the last eighteen pages constitute a useful set of endnotes entitled “Credits (in order of appearance).” Despite its size, Notebooks packs an ambitious punch. It not only tells the magical story of Douglas and Éléna, it also critiques a period of historical resource, urban and social development, describing the effects of human greed. At the same time it reveals the effects of the Holocaust on one of the main characters. None of the topics is out of place in this tale; they fit together to complete a very satisfactory read.

In addition to Christine Eddie’s deft integration of characters, plot and history, she seduces the reader with language. She writes, “After his second winter in the woods, loneliness fell on Romain like a bear on a butterfly,” using imagery so arresting that the reader is able to absorb the full weight of his sadness. In another chapter, Éléna reassures Douglas (aka Romain) that she loves him despite his difficult childhood by saying, “I would have liked you even if you were an earthquake.” Later, in the city, “the buildings pour their staircases onto the sidewalks.” This translation by Sheila Fischman, a well-established, award-winning Québecoise translator, is so convincing one could easily imagine it was originally written in English, except that the language is curiously heightened, enriched by a generous sprinkling of fresh poetic idioms.

The two romantic characters are misfits who find each other in a thick forest. They triumph over mean family backgrounds and physical challenges. Although the whole book is sweet (and I mean that only in the best sense of the word), the beginning is the sweetest and most poetic part of the book. I wanted it to go on and on–like a fairytale. But the story divides in two. Tragedy, also known as reality, crashes into their idyllic home. The fallout, the rest of the story, revolves around Rose, the daughter of Douglas and Éléna.

It is a fable, a fairytale with a substantial measure of contemporary social criticism. Like a good fairytale, it is hard to determine exactly where it takes place, which should make it solidly universal. And although it might be universal, somehow the place is important. I wanted to know where the story was happening. The place names are mainly French; I kept, picturing small villages on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River. This is part of the mystery. Nevertheless, wherever it really does take place, it is well worth the read.

Arleen Paré is a Victoria writer whose forthcoming book of poetry, Lake of Two Mountains, will be released by Brick Books in Spring 2014.

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