A dif­fi­cult dance

Se­ri­ous is­sues glazed over in tale of Mon­treal’s roar­ing ’20s

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Juli­enne Isaacs

ONE bustling city (Mon­treal), two am­bi­tious artists (a dancer and a pho­tog­ra­pher), at least three cat­a­clysmic events, four or more turns for the worse and count­less bursts of am­bi­tion: Ser­afim and Claire is packed to burst­ing. Fol­low­ing 2011’s Be­liev­ing Cedric, Mon­treal writer Mark La­vo­rato’s third novel is de­signed to please an au­di­ence hun­gry for his­tor­i­cal fare in the vein of The Chap­er­one and The Paris Wife. Brim­ming with the ac­ces­sories of the flap­per scene — bobs, street­cars and flash­bulbs — Ser­afim is a peppy Cana­dian take on the roar­ing ’20s. Claire is an am­bi­tious dancer build­ing a rep­u­ta­tion on Mon­treal’s vaude­ville stages; Ser­afim is a Por­tuguese im­mi­grant ex­per­i­ment­ing in street pho­tog­ra­phy. While Claire slowly comes to the re­al­iza­tion that, in showbiz, tal­ent and the will to suc­ceed can only get you so far, Ser­afim is forced to ac­cept that, in jour­nal­ism, can­did pho­tog­ra­phy is not yet à la mode. When the duo re­al­izes col­lab­o­ra­tion might mean suc­cess, events take a dramatic turn. Ser­afim is lively with the kind of colour that sets up fresh-faced his­tor­i­cal nov­els for The Great Gatsby- style cinematic treat­ment. And there’s a sort of brave gusto in La­vo­rato’s reach — Ser­afim dives head­long into a be­wil­der­ing ar­ray of is­sues be­yond the artis­tic, from abor­tion and pros­ti­tu­tion to pol­i­tics and re­li­gion, all of them rooted in the con­text of a pre­car­i­ous, post­war, post-De­pres­sion Que­bec. In that sense, Ser­afim carves out a kind of his­tor­i­cal re­search space for it­self, of­fer­ing a unique take on the im­mi­grant ex­pe­ri­ence and a glimpse be­hind the cur­tain into Que­bec’s shift­ing po­lit­i­cal and sex­ual moral land­scape. Of­ten, how­ever, Ser­afim’s open pro­mo­tion of rather te­diously con­ven­tional lib­eral ideals dis­tracts from its core of hu­man drama. In a his­tor­i­cal novel, ev­ery non-con­form­ist po­lit­i­cal po­si­tion must be prob­lema­tized. Ser­afim sells it­self short with a shal­low fem­i­nism that signs off on suf­fragette themes without ever re­ally ex­plor­ing its fe­male char­ac­ters’ mo­ti­va­tions on emo­tionale or spir­i­tual lev­els. We’re treated to the vis­ual as­pect of the scene at al­most ev­ery op­por­tu­nity, with ev­ery cos­tume and ex­pres­sion de­scribed in ful­some de­tail: “She would watch them leaple to their feet be­yond thet glare of the spot­light, a flow­erf some­times thrown in­toin its white beam in a high, softs arc, land­ing on the stage with­outw a sound.” Sev­eral se­ri­ous, emo­tional plot points, how­ever, are not given the at­ten­tion they de­serve. For in­stance, a key scene in­volves (as­ton­ish­ingly bru­tal) gang rape, the psy­cho­log­i­cal ram­i­fi­ca­tions of which are left vir­tu­ally un­ex­plored — un­less you count the vic­tim’s worry about a re­sult­ing scar, “that un­sightly light­ning bolt of pink that cas­caded from her navel and pointed into her hair­line.” Other pesky prob­lems plague Ser­afim, from fore­shad­ow­ing (“In years to come Claire would re­mem­ber this mo­ment as a time in her life when things were still sim­ple”) to over-ex­pla­na­tion (“This was his way of touch­ing on the topic of the ethe­real, of the here­after and prov­i­dence”). But ev­ery now and then La­vo­rato bal­ances the present, vis­ceral mo­ment with deep sub­text, and what re­sults is great, even beau­ti­ful writ­ing: “He wanted to feel the wings of free­dom and ad­ven­ture, the re­lease of his bur­dens and dis­grace, the quick­en­ing air of his plunge from the tree­top. But all he re­ally felt was the cold of the metal in his hands, and the clothes on his back.” Buried as they are, these mo­ments are worth find­ing in Ser­afim and Claire. Juli­enne Isaacs is a Win­nipeg-based

writer and ed­i­tor.


La­vo­rato’s novel is not without flaws, but at times his writ­ing is beau­ti­ful.

Ser­afim and Claire

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