Silence enfolds the Borya family and the small, sparse world that they inhabit, wrapping around them tightly, constricting them. “The Boryas don’t speak much in the lighthouse,” as the sound of the waves is too loud. Neither do they speak much outside of it: “No one speaks of these things, evident to those in the know.” But what is not said holds more significance here.
The Body of the Beasts is daring and darkly erotic, as emotionally and morally elusive as the characters who roam within it. Theirs is a world that exists beyond words; richness abounds in the quiet places. Acts take place that are not spoken of, perhaps should not be spoken of — family secrets and indiscretions. Boundaries are pushed, and the nature of blood bonds, of love and loving, is brought into question. This is a novel about the knowableness and unknowableness of people, of alienation and liberation, of desire and experience, and how it shapes us. But most of all, it speaks to what a strange and beautiful thing it is to be alive.
This is Audrée Wilhelmy’s third novel and the first to be translated into English — a shame for English speakers if her other two books are anywhere near as evocative as this one. Susan Ouriou is the translator, and a masterful one at that. The book describes itself as “Québécois Boreal Gothic,” which is a lovely, lyrical phrase and an apt description of the novel’s remoteness, its depths of passion and longing, and its deep rootedness in nature.
Three generations of Boryas walk this story, though time often dances backwards and forwards over the years. The parents, the first Boryas (though the least important), move their family to a remote lighthouse where they make their home on an unforgiving coast, isolated and impoverished, in a land and time left uncertain. Sevastian-Benedikt is the eldest son and the strongest. He lives deep in the forest, the family’s hunter and provider. He is virile, masculine, and hard. Osip, his younger brother, is softer, gentler; he is the lighthouse keeper who keeps watch — and watches his relations (he is always watching). Their mother is the Old Woman, a nameless shadow of her former womanly vigour. The rest of them are gone.
It is through Osip’s eyes that we see Sevastian-Benedikt emerge one day from the trees with a mysterious woman named Noé. The woman baffles Osip. She is wild, silent, and strange. She refuses a place in the lighthouse and makes her home in the dilapidated cabin on the beach. She bares her flesh freely and without shame, revealing a body marked with a leopard pattern of pink and white scars. Osip watches her from his perch, covets her, lusts after her. Noé changes everything. But he knows “she is not here to stay.”
Noé gives birth to a daughter, Mie, fathered by Sevastian-Benedikt, and it is Mie who is at the centre of this curious tale. This is how the book begins, startling and beautiful:
Mie is doing it again. She scrunches up her mind and imagines herself tugging on a string so its matter emerges from her ear and shimmers before her, malleable as a scrap of fabric; she rolls it up tight and slides it into the brain of another, that of a fish soon to perish, an ant, or one of the great stags braying on the edge of the forest.
Mie is twelve and is intrigued and perplexed by her budding womanhood. She borrows the bodies of beasts to explore the first flushes of her sexual awakening, and her psychic forays into animals are tender and exquisitely crafted. Wilhelmy’s language is tight yet immersive; there is an underlying melancholy to it, like being alone in a forest with nothing but the sound of rustling leaves. It is rare and delightful to find a novel where language and character move so seamlessly together, hand in hand.
First, Mie places herself within a female crane in a courtship dance: “He’s heavy. She lets the coupling take place. It’s quick. And appeasing.” Then she becomes bolder, entering the body of a male bear. This experience is more visceral, more urgent: “When he thrusts, when he burrows into the she-bear’s belly, the young girl marvels at this dive into a warm, living creature.” She is pulled inexorably by the force of it: “Sperm rises and engorges her member, she thinks she will die inside the male — the desire so stupefying it could kill her.” But the propulsive force is always Mie. She is pulled, but never dragged along.
The nature of the “human sex” that Mie wishes to discover is more troubling. For, despite the beasts’ bodies, this is a profoundly human study, and a stark, unforgiving one at that. The sex is raw and real, sometimes sensual, but more often uncomfortable, especially when seen through a modern lens. But here, desire is proximal. There is no one else but the Boryas and Noé to be found. The bodily need is all-consuming; it is where the line between human and animal blurs — though neither state, neither influence, is explicitly good or bad. Yet nowhere is the sex gratuitous, a sign of a skillful undertaking.
Wilhelmy does not set out to shock, nor does she interrogate the behaviours of her characters, or their choices. She only watches them, as they so often watch each other. The writing is too elegant, the character creation too rich, too nuanced for such a simple response as revulsion. Of course, in a post–Game of Thrones world, the bar for repulsion has been set quite high. In a story such as this, one might expect gloom to envelop the reader, but Wilhelmy ensures that life, existence, and all of their breathtaking complexities continually rush in. That is the power of this story.
The Borya family live in a state of near-perpetual solitude in their little lighthouse outpost — a place that is canonically the most lonely. The beam is focused inward; it is the lives of the characters who are navigating their passage. Of course, life, like the sea, can be rocky. They hardly speak, they don’t share much beyond physical features — though this family tree is an unusual one (a few of the branches may be crossed). Each person is changeable, and therefore real. Osip can be both kind and cruel. Noé is a passive mother and a passive lover (“She is nothing but a body”), but she is also the teller of exotic stories, the competent huntress, and the one who sees into the soul of her children. Mie soars above it all, in the bodies of animals, discovering her desires, her agency, her voice (in a way her mother couldn’t).
These characters are the pillars of the story. They are bold creations, and through them Wilhelmy gently tugs at the threads of the human condition. Their voices, and the words unspoken, will haunt you. There is not much more to say, except that a piece of this book will linger.