“Chercher Sam,” a review

by Sophie Bienvenu

Cheval d’août, 2014

Chercher Sam is a simple novel, a novel of the street, written in the language of the street. It is simple, but not simplistic, instead adding depth and interest to the character we most often ignore, the one we try not to talk to, the one we walk by, the one we don’t want to touch: the homeless guy in the street with his dog.

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Our homeless guy is called Mathieu. His dog is Sam, a grey pitbull with a pink collar. “It’s her that keeps me alive, even if I don’t feel like living any more, even if there are days when I don’t manage it.” She is the dam “that stops my memories from drowning me,” “the only thing I had left.” And now she’s gone.

The entire novel is a monologue from Mathieu’s point of view. The writing is a fun blend of French and English (“Ah! Thank God t’es là! J’ai poursuivi un écureuil, pis next thing I know, je savais pus t’étais où,” he imagines Sam telling him when they are reunited); his thoughts, a spot-on mix of the down-to-earth and playful, poetic insights. Montréal-Nord in daytime is “as depressing as a strip club at closing time,” for example.

The book works because its tone is confessional. Mathieu opens up to us from the very first pages. He tells us everything, even when it doesn’t show him at his best — especially when it doesn’t show him at his best.

“Our first night outside, I cried. Not really of sadness. Of emptiness. Of ‘what-are-we-going-to-do-now?-ness.’”

This is his life, where he finds himself, “in an alley that smells of garbage, vomit, and piss.”

Regular flashbacks pull us back to his past, with the main intrigue of the future whether or not he is reunited with Sam. The intrigue of the past quickly swallows most of our attention, though, packed as it is with loneliness, a cruel mother, a sick father, a first love at sixteen, a teenage pregnancy, and a daughter to look after all by himself — the light of his life — Lila. In fact, we quickly come to realize as the plot unravels that Mathieu has lost the three most important things in his life, his three girls: Sam, Lea, and Karine, his crack addict of a girlfriend. How did he end up here? Loss is how he ended up here.

“My cause,” he says, “is to find what I lost. Or at least not to lose anything more.”

There are plenty of twists and turns along the way. So many that it becomes difficult to talk about the plot here without revealing too much. Suffice it to say that Sophie Bienvenu has a real way with words, as she proved with Et au pire, on se mariera. Here, the winning recipe is given another run out. The novel is a monologue from a protagonist we would normally have a hard time identifying with. It is written in crude, modern language that makes everything seem more genuine, more real. And in both novels, there are burning questions that keep us turning the pages until they are resolved.

The novel is eloquent in its simplicity, its self-deprecation, its lack of eloquence:

“I don’t even know if there’s a word to say how hard I stared at her. I don’t know if there’s a word to say how hard I loved her.”

The text has real momentum; everything has a nice feel and depth to it as the tight plot drives us forward. In short, Mathieu is a nice guy, trying his best. Bad stuff has happened to him throughout his life and continues to. We root for him, hoping he’s going to be able to turn it around. We give a damn. And we hope it all works out.

Review by Peter McCambridge

Now available as Searching for Sam from Talonbooks

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