This Giller short-listed book by a Quebec author is hard to describe. It is epic story-telling told with great detail, so there is much content about many many topics. Sometimes I wished that some of the content had been edited out as this is a very long book. Part of the book takes place in Quebec and it is very French-Canadian, with complex family dynamics, wicked nuns, etc. The last half takes place in Berlin and Rome, albeit with characters that are linked by family to the first part of the book. The Lamontagne family is always surprising; the writing is imaginative and often dark.
This is a sweeping Michener-like novel that spans over 300 years, with two family trees at the back of the book to keep track of multiple characters. The novel begins with two men from France who go to New France (Quebec) in 1693 to make a new life in the new world. Their lives diverge remarkably. Charles Duquet/Duke is driven by greed and opportunity to establish a huge and prosperous timber empire; Rene Set marries an indigenous woman so his story takes a very different path. Exploitation of forests is a major theme, not just in North America; the story also extends to China and New Zealand (the giant kauri trees). The book has a satisfying ecological message at the end – overall, a very good read.
O’Neill is a wonderfully descriptive writer of places and people, with sensational metaphors. This new novel is about two orphans who endure terrible hardships while growing up in Montreal from 1915–25: poverty and abuse and then the depression. Much of the story is about vice (such a good word) in Montreal with an extension to New York in the 30s. The two principal characters, Pierrot and Rose, are both flawed and endearing, while dealing with fate and opportunity. This may be my favourite of all O’Neill’s novels.
A Good Death – Gil Courtemanche (perhaps best known for A Sunday At The Pool In Kigali). This is a very well-written story of a dysfunctional large family in Montreal. The patriarch has always been a mean—spirited nasty individual who now has had a stroke with the onset of Parkinson’s. Some members of his family speculate that everyone would be better off if he died. The question of how his death might be facilitated becomes an important theme. His eldest son states that “you can only kill individuals that you love or hate. In this case, the son has never loved his irascible father but can’t hate him because of his illness. This dilemma is resolved in an interesting ending.
Wonderful storytelling of the remarkable relationship between two siblings, Nouschka and Nicolas, who have grown up without parental love: a physically absent mother and an emotionally absent father. O’Neill captures the francophone world on Montreal in 1995, leading up to the separation vote. The sibling relationship is amazingly close but they are moving in different directions: Nouschka is going forward and Nicolas is stuck in the present/past. Wonderful writing, especially the metaphors!