Wonder a textured and often elegant novel
Fortier’s book benefits from good translation
In London, a mathematician sits on the cusp of a breakthrough in his theory of wave propagation as the smoke from a volcanic eruption that killed all but a single resident of faraway Martinique wafts overhead. A century later, two strangers communicate through the stones they arrange on the slopes of Montreal’s Mount Royal Cemetery.
What, pray tell, will tie these remote events and characters together? The structural riddle posed by Dominique Fortier’s new novel has become a recognizable narrative strategy thanks to works such as A. S. Byatt’s Possession, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours.
Put it in a lineup next to these massively successful novels and Fortier’s book will likely strike you as wanting. Considered away from their bright lights though, Wonder (published in French in 2010 as Les Larmes de saint Laurent) is a textured and often elegant novel.
In this, it benefits from a limber translation by Sheila Fischman, whose skill and ubiquity have made her English Canada’s dominant lens into Quebec’s literature. It doesn’t hurt that Fortier, too, is a translator who has handled CanLit heavyweights like Marga- Written by Dominique Fortier Translated by Sheila Fischman McClelland & Stewart ret Laurence and Anne Michaels.
As a result, Fortier’s writing comes to us for the most part unfettered by metaphorical or terminological awkwardness.
The first of the novel’s three parts is based on the true story of Baptiste Cyparis (whose first name, August, has been changed), an Afro-Caribbean man who was recruited by the Barnum & Bailey Circus after he survived the apocalyptic eruption of Martinique’s Mount Pelée in 1902.
Ironically, Cyparis owed his good fortune to the fact that he was the island’s only prisoner at the time — the prison’s subterranean, dungeon-like walls having insulated him from the volcano’s heat and ash. Though little is known about Cyparis, in Fortier’s telling he’s a decent enough sort, his arrest the result of his defending the honour of a local prostitute.
Here, Fortier shows a fondness for the kind of juxtapositions exploited in her first novel, On the Proper Use of Stars (the bridesmaid for a number of prizes, including the Governor General’s Literary Award).
Wonder begins on a foreshadowy Ash Wednesday. As the island’s annual carnival comes to a close, the servants of the wealthy de La Chevrotière household — Baptiste among them — are being waited on by their masters (like many carnivals, this one acts as a societal pressure valve by briefly upending social roles).
The servants, however, seem to be enduring rather than revelling in their proverbial day at the spa. The laundress flinches as drops of wine stain the tablecloth; an awkward exchange with the valet leaves a plate shattered on the mahogany floor.
Class and hierarchy, of course, will soon be irrelevant, nature being about to step into her role as the great equalizer: “For the first time in centuries, there were no longer Blacks or Whites, all being covered with a fine powder such as duchesses and courtesans used to sprinkle on their faces and wigs.”
Later, while travelling America by rail with the circus, Baptiste meets and marries Alice, who cares for its animals. Healthy but homesick, he finds himself, in the manner of lottery winners, oppressed by his supposed good luck. After taking the fall for another disaster, this one the direct but preventable result of his affair with the circus’s stunt rider, he ends up back behind bars.
Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, the (real) British mathematician Augustus Edward Love is pondering the invisible forces that lie beneath Earth’s surface. He and his wife, Garance, a musician who professes to “hear the secret song in all things” are, in essence, a couple of happy geeks.
In their travels, Love notes curious similarities in the sulphurous hot springs found in newly accessible Pompeii and Bath where everyone seems to be carrying local writer Jane Austen’s books around.
Tragedy is soon to strike, however. Garance dies in childbirth and a heartbroken Edward lives long enough to see his mathematical theory of elasticity published.
Though Fortier carefully avoids naming the man and woman who appear in the novel’s third part, there’s a lot of stage whispering going on. The woman encounters the man who spends his days outside poring over books on earthquakes and volcanoes — he’s about to go on a dig of Pompeii — while walking her dog at Montreal’s Mount Royal Cemetery (notably the only one of the novel’s three mass graves put there by design).
Though Fortier succeeds in bringing Cyparis and Love’s stories to life, Wonder would arguably have been more interesting had she approached this last part with greater transparency. Instead, she opts for a drum roll ending that suggests not only that we’re all replicas of our forebears, but we may inherit their fates as well.