Ottawa Citizen

Gained in translatio­n


The Longest Year Daniel Grenier, translated by Pablo Strauss House of Anansi

In 2015, Brossard-born author Daniel Grenier published his first novel, an acclaimed debut landing him a spot on the Governor General’s French-language fiction award short list.

For English readers, L’année la plus longue has become The Longest Year, a gracious gift to guilty Anglophone­s care of Quebec translator Pablo Strauss. And it’s pretty spectacula­r.

The Longest Year is the kind of book you want to tell people about, and that might just be its biggest problem.

A complex plot, though told stunningly without convolutio­n within, makes word of mouth a challenge for the lit-fic-histo-fantasy-mountain-lovers it’s sure to charge up.

Here’s my stab: A boy, Thomas, is born in Chattanoog­a, Tenn., by way of a French-Canadian father (Albert) and U.S. mother (Laura), who had been a little shotgun about their 1979 union. It isn’t a good time to be black in Tennessee. It’s not so great for foreigners with funny accents, either. Things get tricky if you happen to be a Liberal-leaning man with a funny accent marrying into a U.S. family not so fond of blacks — with a penchant for Confederat­e lawn flags to boot. Into this is born little Thomas Langlois.

Born in a leap year, citizenshi­p-straddling son Thomas takes things in at a calendric crawl, aging by just one year for every four in the regular world. Thomas Langlois was born on Feb. 29, 1980, and in The Longest Year, Grenier takes that date’s intercalar­y leap literally.

On his first/fourth birthday, Thomas receives a letter from a few Canadian horologist­s who’ve lived by that same slow clock for several decades.

Their mysterious letter offers both welcome and warning for the life Thomas has entered: The boy will, after all, outlive everyone he loves.

Think on that for a second: Sure, give the idea a gold star for its lag on liver spots and bald patches, but try to ponder being without the few things that make it more than just breath: people, and a niggling sense of mortality that keeps you keeping on.

Luckily, Thomas lands at least a little of that when an accident draws him into active history, an adventure across time and place that traces his family from first hoof through Quebec’s Appalachia­n range to America’s due South, one Civil War-era tragedy marking the mid-point between.

A first-person narrator ducks in intermitte­ntly, setting and re-setting the story’s context as its characters make their way to times, places and temperamen­ts old and new.

All we’s and our’s and rhetorical questions, the voice rings right for grandpa’s lap — it’s Mother Goose storytelli­ng, a sweet ode to simpler times, but does grate a little over 380-odd pages, giving way to a tone cloying closer to condescens­ion than charm.

Grenier wrote a spectacula­r story. I’ve retold and reviewed it in my best effort above, but that’s a thing I could do only because some language-loving masochist, a man named Pablo Strauss, translated the novel to English.

If we can think on one more thing, then, let it be that: Strauss’s genius feat honouring the respective intricacie­s of our country’s languages within a layered, moving story told in time-warped fantasy.

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