“What do you with a girl who has journeyed to the Land of the Dead (Canada), has consorted with savages, left her soul on an island inhabited by demons, given birth to a fish, disappeared into a labyrinth of dreams and turned into a bear? At best, if I return to the place I once called home, I will be a spectacle. Now I have no home nor self nor soul.” (from Elle, by Douglas Glover, Goose Lane, 2003)
When, on p.167, I reached this passage in Douglas Glover’s novel, Elle, I thought: oh, I’m so glad someone’s put things into context because for a moment I feared I might be losing my mind… not that that would have stopped me reading. The book was, despite my confusion at times, unputdownable for its quirky take on history and its sensuous imagery mixed with perfectly pitched satirical elements.
Its shape takes the form of an anti-quest, best explained in Elle’s words:
“… You go on a journey, but instead of returning you find yourself frozen on the periphery, the place between places, in a state of being neither one nor the other. Instead of a conquering hero, you become a clown or fuel for the pyre or the subject of folk tales.”
In a nutshell:
A wealthy and young nymphomaniac slightly bored tart living in 16th century France, who has disappointed her father (seems he disapproves of rampant lustfulness), sends her to Canada on one of Jacques Cartier’s ships. On board, she’s soon at it with a handsome but seasick tennis player—mostly to distract herself from a raging toothache (a tooth later removed by tying one end of a string to it and the other to a dog named Leon, who is then encouraged to jump overboard, taking the tooth with him).
Perceived as being more trouble than she’s worth, Elle is abandoned en route on a tiny island at the mouth of the St. Lawrence, along with her nurse and her lover. Soon after, they both die and she’s left alone to cope with the elements, hunger, and eventually a kind of weird dreamlike madness where she maybe/maybe not turns into a bear and maybe/maybe not gives birth to a fish. (One of the most beautiful scenes follows this ‘birth’ with Elle’s initial horror being replaced by love and the realization that the ‘creature’ will not live long; she then begins to tell it everything she knows…)
Eventually she befriends the indigenous people and ultimately comes to understand something of them, all of which leads to her transformation from acerbic child obsessed with trivialities to deeply thoughtful woman respectful of life and connected with the earth. It’s in this new, improved state that she returns to France to face a kind of culture shock of the soul.
What I loved:
Elle’s voice. She may be afraid, confused, possibly going doolally at times, but her delivery is consistent and crystal clear—casual almost—whether she’s reducing the most horrendous or inane events to brilliant satire, or being philosophical on the deepest level.
(Also loved the cover photo of a statue in Pere Lachaise Cemetery, in Paris; cover design by Chris Tompkins)
Richard, the tennis playing lover who does little more than build a tennis court (and rebuild it each time the tide goes out). He has almost no dialogue but is clearly, and cleverly, drawn by his actions; every scene with him in it made me laugh.
What I Questioned:
Possibly a few too many dreams. The story can be confusing at times—though this confusion parallels Elle’s experience, is essential, and works beautifully. However the dreams, and certainly the number of dreams, began to detract from the surreal-ness of her experience by virtue of their mundane-ness (I mean, we all have dreams).
Three Impressions Overall:
Memorable characters. Beautifully strange journey. Smart, subtle, and delicious humour.
From the Re-Run Series: originally posted March, 2010.