French Canadian Dupont’s bruiser of a novel begins as a traditional family saga set in a small, early-20th-century Quebec village before swerving into new, less linear, and more psychologically demanding territory.
Born in 1918 and almost immediately orphaned, larger-than-life figure Louis Lamontagne grows up with his grandmother Madeleine, a powerhouse herself, in Rivière-du-Loup. The names Louis and Madeleine will recur among other characters, as will a birthmark shaped like a bass clef and blue eyes in a particular shade of teal. Louis’ nickname, "The Horse,” is his alone, however, derived from his mythic strength. Womanizing, storytelling Louis’ life is by turns rollicking and tragic. He evolves from a charismatic, beloved boy to a witness to World War II atrocities to an alcoholic funeral director after his youngest son dies in a tragic accident. His middle child, Madeleine, eventually takes center stage. As a pregnant, unmarried teenager, she moves to Quebec City in the 1960s and opens a diner that she expands into a hugely successful chain while raising twin sons, Michel and Gabe. This first half of the novel, chock full of digressive stories about seemingly minor characters, has a rambling, overstuffed, 19th-century feel. But then, more than 250 pages in, Dupont shifts gears; the novel narrows and becomes epistolary. In 1999, Gabe, on a hopeless romantic quest in Germany, and Michel, an opera singer making a controversial film version of Tosca in Rome, begin a correspondence expressing their ambivalence toward each other and their conflicting views of their mother. Meanwhile, Gabe meets an elderly German woman with a convoluted story she shares in notebooks that take Gabe and the reader in unexpected directions. Everyone’s version of events differs here; there’s no trusting who’s hero, victim, or villain—or what’s real; parallels accumulate; every casually mentioned detail becomes important as truths are revealed.
While the intensity of Dupont’s prose can be maddening, the sweet, sour, and salty world he creates is thoroughly addictive.