A review of Michèle Plomer’s “Habiller le coeur”

Marchand de feuilles, 2019

At the ripe old age of seventy, our narrator’s mother decides to leave everything behind to go work in Puvirnituq, in Quebec’s Far North. Michèle’s protests—“You’re leaving next Thursday?!”—are met with a blunt “I don’t need you,” forcing her daughter to “scan the apartment, looking for somewhere to shelter from those words, I don’t need you. The rooms are all white walls and stuffy armchairs. I settle on the ledge of the living-room window, which is broad enough to take me.” As will become evident throughout, “mothers have the gift of taking our hearts hostage, no matter what they do.”

This interplay, the teasing—occasionally sharp—back-and-forth between mother Monique (Moe) and daughter Michèle is the heart and soul of what is a thoroughly charming novel. Everything is so warm, so full of witticisms that bring a smile to the lips, so beautifully and convincingly described that the term “feel-good” seems inappropriate, much too lightweight, not sufficiently literary, even though that is exactly what the novel does: it makes us feel good. So much so that by the time Monique presses play and listens to Ella Fitzgerald’s My Funny Valentine, we know all too well what she means when she sings, “You make me smile with my heart.” There’s an uncommon absence of cynicism, a curiosity, a thirst for life that fills the reader with wonder and awe and respect and, well, makes us feel good.

The narrator has banished herself to a Rockhill apartment “with no radio or TV, deaf and blind to the news outside” in order to write a novel, “to reacquaint herself with the drama of existence, to escape the routine of turning everything into a joke in order to survive outside of cocktail hours,” and the book flits deftly back and forth between this writerly life, Moe’s adventures in the north, and Moe’s early life in 1950s Montreal:

“She had to exile herself among the English to study, to confront her ideas, to explore her full potential. She had to venture west of St. Lawrence Street. She passed through the looking glass… And now she finds herself exiled to the North, to live her life as an older woman to the full, to escape the tyrannies of line dancing, volunteer work, and the looks from her daughter.”

Moe is working with social services, a wheel of government that has “ravaged families and destroyed lives across the community.” But there she is, in all her simplicity, with her feelings of guilt, her doubts, her helplessness and confusion. She has no agenda, no judgment.

Showered with blessings and kindness, Moe is in her element, naturally enough for “a woman who makes her way through life with the wonder of a traveller.” Inuktitut becomes “words with no outline, padded and soothing, which turned in the handset like a soft breeze erasing footprints in the snow”; snowmobile tracks are “modern art cast in a crystal mould”; a tuque plops to the floor with the gentle thud of a fledgling falling from the nest, embracing the head with “the assurance of loving hands.”

As so often with a Marchand de feuilles novel, it crosses our mind that Michèle Plomer could be reeling off her grocery list to us and we’d still be hanging on every word. And, as always with Marchand de feuilles, this is no grocery list: it’s a real, beautifully written story to sink our teeth into. Commonplace descriptions are not inserted to advance the plot or explain a scene, but instead spring to life with a beautiful turn of phrase—“Of her parents, she remembered nothing. Her aunt had been a stranger who, when they left the camp, had taken her by the hand and never let go.”—as the everyday is dissected and served up with the eye, the ear, the timing of a poet.

Twenty-five years separate mother and daughter, although their experiences are worlds apart. “I can see that you knocked down doors, and that they stayed open for me,” Michèle tells her at one stage, but Moe has moved on with her story, too caught up in the wonders of life and childhood reminiscences to bother replying. She’s out shopping for snowmobiles, obsessing over the perfect winter coat, embracing change, and getting on with the serious business of growing old gracefully (“The Inuit aren’t afraid of the cold. They use it to their advantage. That’s exactly where I stand with old age.”).

That said, it’s not all blue skies and seagulls in the land of $16 kale and deadly whiteouts, or in Montreal for that matter. There’s talk of children “thrown to the wolves in residential schools in Ontario”; the unhoped-for discovery of the Terror from Franklin’s expedition is counterbalanced by a nod to “the pneumonia, the tuberculosis, the lead poisoning, the hypothermia, the cannibalism, the madness” that form a different side to the same story; and there are hints that Moe would perhaps be wiser to consider herself “an old woman living alone in a dangerous land.”

But if slang and joual are frequently called on in Quebec fiction to convey the complicated messiness of its realities, Plomer’s thoughtful, studied prose and high register for everyday conversations (characters’ speech is dotted with words like néanmoins and indubitablement) help convey a sense of literary delight and wonder, perhaps encouraging us to see the special world of Plomer’s making through rose-tinted glasses.

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Because this is a world in which even phone numbers are learned by heart then reeled off “like love poems,” where caribou tastes “of cold and freedom,” where growing old is “a privilege.” It’s a place of mischief, not misdeeds. And readers, every bit as much as Moe, end up eager to “give in to the simplicity of the extraordinary” and the magic of the north.

It all ends with a hug. With tears in the reader’s eyes, and Michèle laughing and crying into her mother’s hair. The perfect ending to a book that has reminded us to smile with our hearts. Delightful.

Review by Peter McCambridge

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