this is not a review: ‘and the birds rained down’, by jocelyne saucier

 

I haven’t the foggiest as to why fat books are so popular. Is it because there’s more to wade around in, that the reading will last longer? A double cheeseburger vs a cup of soup?

Yes, but,  I say.

Skinny books, being pared down to their sweet essence, have a tendency to stay with you long after the yummy saga of a fat book has slid into the oblivion of a happy gamorph. (After which you’re hit with the craving for another fat book.) A skinny book, on the other hand, often begs to be read again. And the re-reading gets sweeter (and more nourishing) every time.

And the Birds Rained Down is a skinny book of the most delicious kind, one of five Canada Reads selections, for which I am truly grateful.andthebirdsraineddown-220

I’ll be honest though. It took me few beats to relax into it and I wondered why this was… because I liked the story. Then it occurred to me: I was reading at the wrong speed; I was looking for something rather than letting the something contained within the pages find  me.

Also, the ‘something contained’ wasn’t what I thought. So I’d never have found it by looking.

For instance, what it’s NOT about is a few feisty and elderly men who have chosen to live in the woods where they rely on their wits and each other and occasional supplies from town courtesy of a couple of pot growers. Neither is it about the two women who arrive, one a photographer, working on a project about survivors of an infamous fire; the other, a former inmate of a lunatic asylum.

Neither is it about a small Northern Ontario community that was devastated by fire, or the way the fire’s effect has touched various unconnected people in the decades since.

It’s not about dogs named Drink and Chummey, or a cat named Monseigneur.

And it’s certainly not about the worry of death, though it’s mentioned a lot and figures prominently. And, well, there is  strychnine.

It is… however, about dignity. How we see people, how we expect or allow them to live. How we can choose to help or hinder or judge. It’s about the kind of communities we want and the kind we build. (A roadside hotel—a rather old and often overlooked shell of a place with an interesting past that still serves a real purpose to those with an appreciation for authenticity—offers a powerful metaphor for aging.)

“I like places that have given up any pretence of stylishness, any affectation, and that cling to an idea waiting for time to prove them right: prosperity, the railroad, old friends… I’m not sure what they’re waiting for. The region has a number of these sorts of places that stand the test of time as they revel in their own dilapidated solitude.”

It’s about respect for generations that have lived lives we can’t possibly understand; it’s about breaking down age barriers.

“The eyes are what are most important in old people. The flesh is hanging, sagging, gathered in wrinkled knots around the mouth, eyes, nose and ears. The face is ravaged, illegible. You can’t know anything about an old person unless you look into their eyes—their eyes tell the story of their lives.”

It’s about friendship and the surprising places it’s found. In one case, in an asylum where one inmate (who had her own baby taken from her) helped another mourn the loss of her child.

“I rocked her baby. That’s how we became friends. I asked if I could rock her baby. She passed him to me very carefully and I took him just as carefully, and I rocked the baby too, for a long time, singing songs to him. And that’s how, taking turns rocking a baby that didn’t exist, we figured out how not to be where we were.”

It is about love and sex in old age and the latter not working quite as it used to. Never mind. There are other ways. Saucier doesn’t shy away from this subject but treats it with exactly the right amount of ‘natural’. We might ask ourselves why this isn’t talked about more… is it just so terribly shocking to know that the elderly feel passion?

It’s about creativity.

The way these men have built their lives, and an unknown stash of paintings in which more is revealed about the artist than ever could be shared in friendship.

And, yes, it’s about death. Not in any maudlin or sentimental way but in the way it’s connected to both life and independence and the choices we make. Not only how we live, but how we die…

“Too many deaths,… Too many bodies, too much black coiled at the bottom of his paintings, never any light, or, if there is any, it’s to illuminate blacked bodies, cries of horror, hands out stretched where death surprised them. No one can live with that deep within. Ted tried to free himself from it, to hurl all of that horror onto the canvas. Maybe he succeeded in a sense. His final painting, the one on his easel, had light—very little a faint glimmer, but enough to created a space from which he could slip away gently. That’s what I hope for him, it’s what I hope for all of us. To slip away gently.”

It’s a book that celebrates the realities of life in its not always perfect perfection. And it does so quite perfectly.

All that in 155 pages.

And the Birds Rained Down, available online at Blue Heron Books.

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10 thoughts on “this is not a review: ‘and the birds rained down’, by jocelyne saucier

  1. I heard Jocelyne Saucier interviewed by Shelagh Rogers and thought the book sounded good. Now that I’ve read your review as well I’ll definitely get it. Thanks!

    1. If you like the style of Anne Hebert, Constance Beresford-Howe, some of Antonine Maillet… (Don l’Original; La Saguine), I think you’ll enjoy it. Not a prerequisite by any means! Nor am I comparing them. But it’s those odd little slice of life books that get to me and this falls into that category. Subtle but packing a big punch.

      1. I do like all of those. I hadn’t thought about Constance Beresford-Howe for a long time. She is an under appreciated Canadian writer, in my opinion.

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