Won­der a tex­tured and of­ten el­e­gant novel

Fortier’s book ben­e­fits from good trans­la­tion

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Books - EMILY DON­ALD­SON

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.


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