“Bitter Rose,” a review

by Martine Delvaux

translated by David Homel

Linda Leith Publishing, 2015

“For the most part,” Martine Delvaux says in an online interview with Ceri Morgan, “I don’t invent anything. I have nothing to say except my own experience of the world.” And elsewhere, tellingly, “I don’t think I believe in what we call ‘identity’ as one thing or another, something that defines us once and for all. Except when it comes to being considered female in our society — this taints everything we do on a daily basis.”

Gender runs through this novel — or is it fictionalized memoir? — this “world where no one spoke of men, they were not a subject of conversation because they didn’t really exist, or only as grandfathers, bosses, neighbours, doctors. Life was lived among girls.” It begins with a childhood “filled with tiny toys fished out of the bottom of cereal boxes in the morning, Cracker Jack that broke your teeth, sticky Rice Krispies squares, chicken sandwiches that were impossible to dip into the gluey Saint Hubert sauce, melting chocolate sundaes topped with peanuts from Dairy Queen. Life was like a fairy tale. The princes were away, and one day they would suddenly appear having fought a dragon.”

This is a novel of gender, then. A novel of a male-female divide. A novel of disappearing girls. A novel of place, too. In a world in which men are “pale stars in distant orbit and far from us” and “all or nearly all fathers were absent, travelling salesmen, lost in the fields or the streets of some big city, carried off in the fog of alcohol or the arms of a mistress,” the narrator’s father “blew away in the wind like the dandelion fluff that covers the lawn with a white blanket in spring.” Montreal is quickly exchanged for an orphanage in Quebec City and then it’s off to “The Village” in Ontario.

“We left the little Rapunzel apartment perched at the top of the tower. We deserted the city and settled where they say the air is cleaner, life is better, and happiness gambols in the meadow.” This village is Anjou, Ontario: “too ugly to be a real village … the kind of village where people were proud to say that everyone knew everyone else … the kind of village you were better off forgetting.”

Most of the plot takes place here and there is no love lost. “For convenience’s sake, people called it the country. They said the country instead of banal. They said the country instead of crummy. They said the country instead of boring.” Missing girls are everywhere in the novel and it is in the village that the disturbing trend begins: “They followed the announcements of missing girls. ‘Hear ye, hear ye, another one gone!’ as if it were a trophy.” The missing girls aside, replace the constant fairytale references with the odd talking dog or owl and there is much to remind the reader of Eric Dupont’s charming Life in the Court of Matane: an uneasy relationship between the narrator and his/her bucolic surroundings, a Catholic Church that still has a hold over its flock (“half-defrocked priests who swore by the Lord, though they could not give up their sins”), schoolyard troubles, standing out (as a “faggot” in Dupont’s case, as a woman in Delvaux’s). “How will you convey the memories without the resentment?” Dupont’s narrator is asked right at the beginning of Life in the Court of Matane. “I don’t plan to,” comes the reply. Delvaux’s narrator seems to follow the same course of action (as with Dupont’s novel, the thinnest of lines separates the author’s biography from the narrator’s), but whereas Dupont’s bitterness is largely confined to the occasional snide aside and a glass or two of 1977 Château Rancour, Delvaux’s is more pervasive, permeating all the way into the title and extending to even memories of the type that we look back on fondly. A childhood summer suntan, for example, is described as follows:

“My stained face was discoloured, like an old car whose doors had been eaten away by rust.”

The most obvious example is the overlap between the periods of growing up described by both Dupont (born 1970) and Martine Delvaux’s narrator (born, like the author, “just after Expo 67”). Nadia Comaneci’s performance at the 1976 Summer Olympic Games in Montreal marks both novels, both childhoods, an event that remains engraved on Quebec’s consciousness as a whole to this day. “July 1976. Montreal,” begins Life in the Court of Matane. “The 21st Olympic Games. A tiny Romanian gymnast stands on a mat and waves to the crowd. For thirty seconds, she swings back and forth between two wooden bars, defying the laws of gravity. Her landing is perfect. She even manages a smile, and gambols away from the blue mat as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. With the whole world looking on, she gets a perfect score. Ten.” The same scene plays out in Bitter Rose: “I remembered the summer of 1976, that summer of perfection, the Olympic Games on television, Nadia Comaneci’s perfect 10s, the whole world watching in amazement, the contortions of that small body, her little ponytail held in place by a soft cloud of cloth, the arc of her back, she was like a feather, an angel.” But then comes the bitterness as our angel is brought back down to earth, used and abused by men:

“Then the wonderment was over, even though the little gymnast had forced the judges to change the way they scored, soon people were saying she was anorexic, her life was miserable, her trainer had abused her. She was stripped bare in public and burned for sorcery. They said she was passed from man to man, from one fascism to the next, from Romania to the United States via Austria, the way she flew between the uneven bars.”

There is adolescence, too, in this “cursed village.” Exchanges of “liquids and declarations of love” as life goes on “in the heat of hay and mosquito bites.” There are complaints of referendums, an actor becomes a candidate for the presidency of the United States, and a boycott is organized of the Moscow Games when, as with Dupont, family history and world history play out side by side, often in the same sentence: “We had put a man on the moon, Elvis was dead, we were going to move.”

The move is to Chichester, “in the suburbs of our nation’s capital.” With the move comes a shift in perspective, a loss of the magic of childhood, although the disturbing undercurrent still runs deep: “People said there were as many Ophelias in the Hudson River as empty bottles and dirty Kleenexes.” A later move takes us to downtown Ottawa, sharing an apartment “with a girl who was ten years older than me, with long, wavy hair, antiques in her room, a married lover, and a venereal disease.” Quirky details and turns of phrase like these are the rule rather than the exception throughout, and though it is clear that both Delvaux and translator David Homel have a way with words, the narrative stumbles and fades as it goes on, the later chapters attached only to the more sparkling childhood reminiscences by way of the book’s dedication: “To my mother To my missing father To the missing children”

Review by Peter McCambridge

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