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Douglas notebooksThe Douglas Notebooks by Christine Eddie
Translated by Sheila Fischman

Goose Lane 2013 (2007)
Trade Paperback with Flaps
178 pages
Fiction; Fable

I’ve read a scant handful of English-translated French novels, especially French-Canadian novels, and they have all had a distinctly, how can I describe it, dreamlike? quality to them. They’re less anchored by daily minutiae, somehow. It’s a quality, a tone or atmosphere, that I can’t quite put my Anglo finger on yet. Suffice it to say that, The Douglas Notebooks seems to me like a novel only a French person could write. Which is a compliment, trust me.

This is a fable, but in a loosely-defined sense. It seems to float, not tethered to any particular time or place, in order to tell a tale that is both strange and at the same time, perfectly ordinary. The writing itself is what gives it its fable-like quality, the sensation that you’re reading something ancient yet contemporary. With a story such as this, in which the writing itself it like a living organism, both the writing and the story are impossible to separate, much like classical music and the piano.

In an undisclosed place in the world (but most likely Quebec) at an undisclosed time (but most likely post WWII and onwards), a rich and powerful businessman, Antoine Brady, and his wife Alexina, have a daughter, and then a son – Romain. Romain will inherit an empire, but he is different from his family, and made to feel constantly at fault.

…their younger son, though perfectly normal, never knew exactly how to behave with his nouveau riche family who kept up relations only if they were public. To the questions Romain asked – naively, timidly like all children his age – they made no reply, or replied too quickly and off the point. Not now. How can you think such a thing? Will you please keep quiet! The little boy wandered the gleaming corridors of the manor house with its fake turrets; he hid in the folds of the curtains, hands stroking the heavy velvet; he curled up on the landing of the imitation marble stairs that was wide enough to hold two family trees. In the end, he did indeed keep quiet. [p.13]

Romain couldn’t stand up straight. Romain waddled like a duck. Romain put his elbows on the table and, more often than not, started fights. Romain was too much this and not enough that. When a word dared to exit his mouth, it disconcerted. It wearied his mother, irritated his father. Awkwardness, foolishness, absent-mindedness. All was Romain’s fault. Even the rain that rotted the crops. [p.15]

At his eighteenth birthday, Romain announces that he is “leaving to live in the country for a while.” No one believes him, and no one thinks he can look after himself. Mostly, no one knows anything about Romain or what he can or can’t do. Even after he packs a simple bag and leaves, no one really understands that he’s gone; they’re still deciding what private university to send him too.

Meanwhile, Romain makes a home for himself in some woods, near a river, some seventy-six-days’ walk from his parents’ home. He builds himself a cabin, plants the seeds he’s brought with him in a clearing, and catches fish in the river. With the money he saved up over the years, he makes small purchases in nearby villages, each trip an adventure. In one such village he encounters Éléna, the apothecary’s assistant.

Éléna Tavernier came to the village of Rivière-aux-Oies by way of a convent, the Little Sisters of Saint Carmel, where she had fled to after her abusive father dies when their house catches fire. Éléna first encounters Romain’s music – he took his clarinet with him, and plays it in the woods – when out gathering herbs and plants for making medicine. The pair fall in love, and soon Éléna is spending more time with Romain – who they rename Douglas, after the tree – than with Mercedes, the apothecary. And then comes the baby, and everything changes.

In simple terms, a fable is a very short story featuring anthropomorphised animals, plants or other natural phenomena, and a moral or message. The Douglas Notebooks doesn’t fit that definition in a conventional sense, though it does feature a tamarack tree (Larix laricina), a deciduous conifer, which Douglas comes to believe is – well, I can’t tell you who without spoiling things. But the tree is a recurring motif, certainly, and in some ways, Douglas himself is almost uncivilised to the point of being closer to nature than to anything human. As for a moral or message, it isn’t readily apparent but is possibly to do with time, progress, love, change – themes like that. It’s anti-development, pro-preservation of the forests seems pretty evident, as is the understanding that you can’t stop it.

The sense of time being flexible, or not quite realistic, is best captured in medieval-like nature of Rivière-aux-Oies – before Antoine Brady comes and makes a deal to develop the land and build a big shopping centre; after that there’s no turning back the tide. The novel is like a time-lapse video of modernity and progress, with several centuries collapsed into just a few short decades. It adds to the surreal, hazy, fable-like quality of the novel, and comes back to this idea that the writing and the story are inseparable.

It’s quite a sad story, in some ways, yet certain characters have the chance at happiness and the outcome of tragedy leads to contentment. It’s told in short segments, divided into parts named after cinematography directions: Location; Close-Up (and fade to white); Wide Shot; High-Angle Shot; Dissolves; Fast Motion; Music; and The End (followed by “Credits (in order of appearance)”, which is like those brief summaries at the end of a movie telling you what happened to certain characters later). The headings work literally, but their cinematic meanings lend a grand scope to the story, a way of making it both an intimate, small tale and also a broader, global story with universal themes.

While I can’t discuss it too much without giving away plot details (and in a short novel light on plot, I already feel like I’ve given too much away), it’s a story that speaks to the heart and contains enough recognisable tropes within a less familiar style, to appeal to many readers. Fischman, an award-winning Canadian translator, has done a fine job of retaining the style and voice of Eddie’s original, I’m sure – I feel it’s safe to say this even without having read the original French novel, because the English version feels and sounds so very French. The Douglas Notebooks is a hauntingly beautiful story, poignant and steeped in layers of meaning, old-fashioned in style yet speckled with timely, modern images and messages. A quick read, it no doubt ripens upon re-reading, though like any fable or fairy tale, it’s an enjoyable read on the surface, too.

My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book.

Canadian Book Challenge 8 Pic 5


Other Reviews:

The Douglas Notebooks is a peculiar book, a tricky thing, and I’m not surely I’ve completely made sense of it yet. […] Which is not to say that The Douglas Notebooks is difficult to approach as a reader, or that I had to work hard to enjoy it. On the contrary, it was an easy book to slip inside, a fast and lively read.” Pickle Me This

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