Poetic intensity trumps structural irregularity and storytelling opacity in the celebrated Ontario author’s intense fifth novel (Anil’s Ghost, 2000, etc.).
Its several stories unfold within two distinct clusters of narratives. The first begins in California in the 1970s, when Anna and her half-sister Claire (a “foundling”) are separated after their father discovers teenaged Anna in the embrace of their hired hand Coop (another orphan). He beats the younger man nearly to death and is himself attacked by his half-crazed daughter. Thereafter, the story is distributed among Coop’s education as a poker player and misadventures among his criminal associates; Claire’s attempt to rebuild her life as a public defender’s legal researcher (which leads her to a brief chance reunion with Coop); and Anna’s pursuit of an academic career as a specialist in French literature, which takes her to the French countryside and the home of late author Lucien Segura—whose life, as reconstructed from her research, is most cunningly connected, incident by incident, image by image, to the story of Anna’s destroyed family. Echoes of Ondaatje’s Booker Prize winner The English Patient (1992) resound throughout Lucien’s story, in which a withdrawn, dreamy boy is shaken into life when a gypsy pair—volatile Roman and his teenaged bride Marie-Neige—are given land to farm in exchange for work performed for Lucien’s stoical single mother Odile. The illiterate Marie-Neige becomes Lucien’s soul mate, eventual intellectual companion and the love of his life—until war takes him away from their quiet village, returning him home only when it is too late to reclaim the unlived life that will endure only in the books he writes. Intricate, lyrical, profoundly moving, this brilliantly imagined meditation on love, loss and memory unforgettably dramatizes the rueful realization that “[t]here is the hidden presence of others in us…[and] We contain them for the rest of our lives, at every border that we cross.”
Not to be missed.