A Village Reinvented

An experimental Quebec novel looks at how the past is packaged.

Some two dozen fiction titles from Quebec and francophone Canada are published in English annually. Such translations are most likely to be issued by small presses such as BookThug, Coach House, Talonbooks and Véhicule, as well as the somewhat larger House of Anansi. Their small press origins can result in a skew toward the experimental—not a bad thing, in my opinion, but when the other genre published in significant numbers tends toward fiction trading in sepia-tinted nostalgia, it leaves something of a gap in the anglophone reader’s knowledge of Québécois literature.

This is intriguing context for reading Jean-François Caron’s second novel, The Keeper’s Daughter, brought into English in an idiomatic translation by W. Donald Wilson. Caron, born in 1978 in the picturesque village of La Pocatière, Quebec, has worked as an editor, journalist and freelance writer, and has previously published two novels and two collections of poetry.

Caron had called his story Rose Brouillard, le film. Wilson’s title might mislead readers into believing that the novel is women’s fiction or book club bait, but in reality it is a complex, multi-layered novel, more subtle and more experimental than that.

The story is seen mostly through the lens of a young filmmaker Dorothée, hired by a tourism company to make a documentary about life on Quebec’s North Shore as it was in the 1940s and ’50s. The company wants human interest stories to appeal to tourists. Although the film is technically a documentary, accuracy is not a major consideration; indeed, it becomes clear that truth, reality and history are simply material to be manipulated. The film’s main subject is Rose, the still-living daughter of an unofficial lighthouse keeper. The cottage she grew up in—there was not actually a lighthouse, just a man who rescued people in difficulties at sea—is on an island not far from Sainte-Marée but isolated enough so that nobody knew Rose existed until she was ten.

The book’s epigraph reads “I’ll be all, everybody. I’ll be the lot: their voices, I’ll take on all of them. / I’m an archipelago.” Who is speaking here? That is left deliberately ambiguous, but the epigraph is the first hint that we cannot trust the first-person fragments—almost film interviews—that make up the novel. Each fragment has a little description, in the same style as the epigraph, at the beginning. When we come across fragments that begin “Another switch: I’m Rose, testing out her own name,” or “I’m inside the head of a new character. He’s a flyfisher” we start to wonder whether Dorothée—or someone else—is voicing all the characters.

Indeed, nothing is quite as it seems. The name of the village, for example, has been changed recently from Sainte-Marie to Sainte-Marée-de-l’Incantation; the Virgin Mary has been replaced with holy tide (the meaning of Sainte Marée) and a superstitious song or incantation: the women “kneel in the mud along the river’s edge, pleading with the sea and the sea gods to protect the fishermen who have gone to sea for the week. It’s said to be a local tradition.”

Rose’s dementia, which becomes increasingly significant as the novel progresses, adds to the slipperiness of the facts: we see that her memory is unreliable, and this frustrates Dorothée. Rose, says Dorothée, is “not telling me her story. She’s living it. I’d like that to be obvious on the screen.” The filmmaker, born in Haiti but resident in Canada since the age of two, never reveals her real name, accepting the name Dorothée bestowed on her by Rose after a poem Baudelaire wrote about his Haitian mistress.

The book itself is constructed like a small village, or perhaps more like reality television, with a multitude of characters, each one with a different perspective and memories that do not quite match those of the others. Apart from Rose and Dorothée, there is another pair whose story leads to Sainte-Marée. A couple looking for a pleasant holiday—grudgingly on the part of the husband, who would rather go fishing (authentically, unlike the fishermen in Sainte-Marée who might only be posed there for tourists)—end up staying in the keeper’s cottage on the same night that Rose and Dorothée are also there, as part of Dorothée’s plan to film Rose’s emotion at seeing the island again.

The fishing tourist is the person who spots holes in the whole project, who notices things that do not add up and photographs that should not be possible. One such photo from the early 1970s shows a group of local men fishing off the dock. Missing from the background in the photo are many of the supposedly century-old houses that the town boasts of today. Another minor character who spent most of her life in Sainte-Marée witnesses this process: “First they knocked down half of the village, any houses not old enough or pretty enough.” On one visit, she sees “a few old friends … I also saw some old folk I didn’t know. Yet they boasted they’d been there forever, for generations. The fools hadn’t twigged that I really came from the place.”

Dorothée occasionally has a life outside the film, mostly related to her very occasional meetings with her lover Henri (also a fake name), who they both try to pretend sees her as a full person and not just his sexy black lover. Dorothée resents this, claiming that she’s “been white all my life. I still am, mostly. When I don’t see myself in the mirror. When I don’t appear on the screen.” Dorothée’s roots are in Haiti, a place she has not seen since she was tiny, and her feelings about her birthplace demonstrate that few origin stories can be trusted.

Do these three linked stories add up to an investigation of the nature of truth and memory? About two thirds of the way through the book, a long passage by a nameless woman from the village gives us a clue about the satirical intent of The Keeper’s Daughter. All this fabrication is not only for the purpose of the documentary. A road had been built to Sainte-Marée, previously accessible only by water, allowing tourists to visit. Unfortunately, the village was too boring, too much like everywhere else. “The council put a guy on the job, a guy they paid to write our history … so we’d know what to tell the tourists. Except he wasn’t a historian … They paid a writer [who’d] never even set foot in the place … The wife of the lost fisherman, the one who began to sing the incantations for the husbands to come back safely, that’s not from here at all … it’s from his writer’s imagination.” The name of this guilty writer? Caron, of course.

At times The Keeper’s Daughter overplays the hyperbole and the suspense without delivering, but on the other hand, the disjunction between appearance and reality is a skillful reflection of the documentary, and Sainte-Marée, itself. This interesting book deconstructs and interrogates the processed and polished history that other Quebec novels sometimes present, and does this in such a way that both form and content are working toward the same goal.