Where the River Narrows
In the Mi’kmaq language, the name of the Canadian province of Québec translates as “where the river narrows.” It’s here, near the northern village of Chicoutimi in the early days of the 20th century, that coureur du bois Antonio Tremblay lives with his two wives, dividing his time between them. These are respectable Marie-Ange, who would have preferred to serve God instead of a husband, and Marie Kapesh, an Indian “wood-wife” who gives him a second family, one he clearly prefers. Marie-Joseph, the plain elder daughter of Marie-Ange, devotes her life to the care of her sister, Marie-Reine, who marries and raises seven children. Their stories are framed by that of Marie-Reine’s granddaughter, Lucie, tracing her own and Québec’s history in modern London while trying to save her own marriage.
The simultaneousness of both past and present, a frequent theme in modern Canadian literature, floats gently through this novel. The personal experiences of early male and female settlers appear periodically, though their presence isn’t forced. A certain nostalgia for Québec’s early history is ever-present, though for some, the pull of the province’s religious past proves difficult to escape. In Laberge’s hands Québec’s separateness becomes palpable and haunting, as shown in its people’s discomfort with fighting Canada’s wars on the side of Britain, a country that had tried to strip them of their own identity.
In some respects the ending is left ambiguous, and I would have liked to know more about Catherine, the wood-wife’s mysterious daughter, who appears only occasionally and at a distance. This thread is frustratingly left unexplained. Still, this is a beautiful book, from the gorgeous photograph on the dust jacket to the exquisite prose contained within its pages.