The Review: The Breakwater House, Pascale Quiviger

The Breakwater House

Book Review: Breakwater House, Pascale Quiviger

Book Review: Breakwater House, Pascale Quiviger

by Pascale Quiviger
House of Anansi

Reviewed by U of T Staff, James Bell

I’ve always been attracted to the fantastic in my reading: the realism of Little House on the Prairie or even the escapist but grounded-in-reality Hardy Boys are not for me.  First comic books, then science fiction and fantasy, and later Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magic realism and the surreal landscapes of Richard Brautigan captured my imagination.  I would have loved to have a mother like Aurore in The Breakwater House, who doesn’t know from where she herself came, and so tells her daughter tall tales about her origins.

Suzanne, an upper middle class Parisian, gives birth to Claire.  Five days later Lucie is born to Aurore, a shopgirl who struggles to make ends meet.  In the park where their mothers take them in their strollers, and at school, the girls form a lifelong bond that bridges their class differences as well as the reticence of their mothers.  Claire’s mother is proper and reserved, Lucie’s mother flighty and bohemian, but even they come to understand and appreciate each other through the medium of their daughters’ unflinching devotion.

Aurore, an orphan, invents a family history for Lucie, who develops an artistic soul and her own talent for storytelling; Claire, as constant companion to Lucie, is exposed to Aurore’s stories as well.  In one tale, Aurore ascribes Lucie’s red hair to her Irish Canadian grandmother, a free spirit who seems to converse with nature, appears in more than one place at the same time, has picked up French without being taught, and is the soul survivor of a family mistrusted for their suspected congregation with the devil.  As Lucie grows older, however, she begins to tire of her mother’s stories, longing to hear one morsel of truth from her.  Instead, on Lucie’s fifteenth birthday, her mother tells her one last story, as fantastic as any she’s told before, and then leaves forever.  This departure marks a new beginning for Lucie, who moves in with Claire and her family.

The novel actually opens with a long sequence in which an unnamed woman finds a remote beach house near the town of Breakwater, a house with no electricity, no phone, but a wonderful garden and an old woman who answers the knock on her gate with just two words: “of course.”  She buys the house impulsively, but when she moves in odd things begin happening: time seems to pass differently in the house, the path from the town to the beach vanishes, and a little girl named Odysee appears.  Is this like one of Aurore’s fantastic stories, the hallucinations of a troubled mind, or do ghosts really exist?

Quiviger ties the different threads of the narrative together masterfully, while creating memorable characters both real and imagined.  Five strong women are brought to life with poetic prose that is a pleasure to read.  The Breakwater House reminds me of D.M. Thomas’ The White Hotel, because of its storylines that gradually converge to illuminate the novel’s opening, a setting in which the reader is dropped unprepared and uninformed.  Follow the story to its conclusion, which brings you back to the beginning, and you’ll be rewarded.
Pascale Quiviger’s first novel, The Perfect Circle, was shortlisted for the 2006 Giller Prize and won the Governor General’s Literary Award.

Buy The Breakwater House now!

Wondering Where the Dodo Went?

Even in a large bookstore with tens of thousands of titles in stock, we as booksellers have to make some tough choices: there is simply not enough room to carry every book.  We have to decide which books are important, which ones might be popular, and throw in some titles (our personal favourites) that we figure no one can do without.  It’s a balancing act, and we hope you like what we’ve selected.  We like to see ourselves as tastemakers or guides, and so when we have the opportunity to introduce our customers to a brand new author, it’s especially gratifying.

I recently had the chance to add one such “discovery” to our selection, a young author named Elijah Teitelbaum whose bio gives a hint of the sensibilities of his work.  “He is often described as ‘weird (but in a good way)’, ‘tall-ish’, and ‘rather smart’.”  I hope that many more people will come to enjoy his work, available as Where the Dodo Went: A Collection of Short Stories and Poems.

A few words come to mind when reading Where the Dodo Went: surreal, whimsical, menacing, Brautigan.  Like Brautigan, Teitelbaum creates engaging, fantasy-tinged stories with touches of humour, but is often deadly-serious: important things are being addressed.  Archetypes are a recurring theme, as the stories include characters identified as “The Man”, “The Woman”, or “Lust”, “Greed”, and “Anger”. Subjects are as varied as an existential showdown with a new toaster, the struggle to accept reality, and an attempt to use terror to cover up a past wrong.  As the back cover puts it: “Within these pages the unreal intrudes upon the real and the ordinary is displayed in the shadow of the unbelievable.”

Where the Dodo Went introduces a fresh voice in Canadian fiction, one that I hope will receive the attention that he deserves, if only so that, years from now, I can proudly say “I knew him when…”