by Annie-Claude Thériault
Marchand de feuilles, 2019
Towards the end of Les Foley, Annie-Claude Thériault’s second novel with Marchand de feuilles, we come across an old, abandoned pier, nothing but “rotten wood and old, piled-up stones.” The pier was built for a railroad that never made it that far. “So no one ever really took care of it. It rotted there, abandoned […] remnants, scraps of ruins. Spoiled snatches of history. Stories never written, never told. Now forgotten.”
This process of ruin and decay until all is forgotten is a source of great preoccupation throughout the book, as much to the novelist as to her narrators. They tend — lovingly, carefully — to family secrets and lies, from unforgettable events to all-too-forgettable everyday moments that Thériault is eager to celebrate and embrace.
The exercise is as enchanting as it is worthwhile. This is a novel of family, of memory. It follows the Foley women from Cobh in Ireland at the height of the potato famine in 1847 right through to Caraquet, New Brunswick, and the stirrings of feminism in the 1960s, bookended by a foreword and afterword set amid the carnivorous plants of Miscou in 2019. More than a device upon which five distinct family portraits are hung, the novel’s structure is a real asset, each of the novel’s five sections focusing on a particular branch of the family tree while leaving no shortage of echoes and recurring themes for the reader to pick up on and piece together along the way.
Although the execution is pleasingly intricate, the story is a simple one, once fitted back together: Laura Dewey Foley finds herself exiled from Philadelphia to the island of Miscou, hoping to find something of her mother — “A trace. A name. My story. Her footprint.” — in among the Sarracenia purpurea (commonly known as the purple pitcher). She’s forty-three and well and truly fed up with her staid life in the United States. Her father’s dead, her mother’s been gone for no more than a few months, and her relationship has, predictably, run its course after ten years. She is, every bit as much as the purple pitcher plant, “mercilessly alone.”
Laura’s presence is limited to these two, relatively short sections, however, as the remainder of the book delights in seeing the family through a different set of eyes each time. In fact, the narration is more layered still: part one, for example, tells Eveline’s story through the eyes of her granddaughter Ann, while the brush strokes of the final portrait — of Laura’s mother, Eveline, in 1963 — are provided by a close friend and neighbour, Clara. These are portraits, yes, but framed within a frame within a frame, and, perhaps most importantly, the framing never feels gratuitous or ostentatious: Thériault unpacks her story (complete with hints and reveals) with the pacing and feel of a skilled director.
In the portraits themselves, though, there is much to savour. Faces are “beaten by the wind, by time, by the tides.” Dust takes off “like smoke, almost a mist.” We take in the music of a broken beaver dam, admire the stillness of the forest. We smell the sweat and spruce.
This is a world of steak and boiled potatoes, of tea and porridge, of turf fires; of absent fathers, of shame, and survival. It’s a novel of mood, of texture. A novel of motherhood, of family; for good and ill. Just like the beetle-ridden camp that Clara and Eveline run off to, it’s “intriguing, terrible, and magnificent, all at once.”
Review by Peter McCambridge