by Christine Eddie

Alto, 2014

There are, we learn, some 71,312 people in this world who are prisoners in their own bodies, “unable to move, tetraplegic, dumb, alive.” Enough people to fill a city the size of Moncton, in other words, their terrible state hammered home by the addition of each terrible, crushing, devastating adjective. Just imagine: unable to move, tetraplegic, not able to say a word. But alive. This is the story of one of them; “Je suis là” (I am here) the words she is unable to speak for herself.

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Christine Eddie’s third novel is “a true story, but not quite the truth.” Eddie has romanticized the story of a family friend, a real-life Angèle struck down by real-life tragedy. She is there to tell us her story. Because Angèle cannot.

Eddie hopes, we read in various interviews, that when we put the book down, readers will know that Angèle is there. That we will have grown fond of her, that she will have given us strength, made us more grateful for our own existence. Because in real life, Angèle tells us early on in the novel, there are minor dramas (tight pants, cold sores), hypothetical dramas, and real dramas. Angèle’s real drama? “That my daughters don’t know how much I love them.”

Telling Angèle’s story is a laudable endeavour and a fine premise for a novel, but does it work? Well, the devil is in the delivery.

“Someone can be sentimental and strong” is one of the novel’s early sentences, the first of many such lines in a very sentimental novel. Already on the first page, there is talk of “moving mountains.”

But Angèle is no angel, she insists in the first-person narrative. Her name comes from the Latin angelus, which, contrary to appearances, comes from the Greek eggelos, meaning messenger. She is a messenger, with a story of her own to tell, and that’s why “the author and I decided at last to write this novel.” (She needs the author’s help, she concedes in a delicious moment of self-derision, because “Jean-Dominique Beauby set the bar real high by dictating his book, one letter at a time, with just one eyelid, in a few weeks.”)

Joan of Arc is her personal mentor; Népenthès, her inner voice and best friend.

“If the past interests me, the future does, too. That’s why I get up early. For close to four years, though, more often than not disappointment awaits as I leave nighttime behind. Too much silence. Too many shadows.”

The silence and the shadows are compensated for by a great deal of sunshine, humour, and whimsical anecdote: Angèle was born on the same day her writing idol Anne Hébert turned 58, for instance. “At the exact moment her friends came to surprise her with champagne, I was at last opening my eyes.” She turned twelve in 1986, the year of the space shuttle Challenger explosion, the year the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup, the year of Chernobyl: “A time when we could no longer be sure of anything.”

The tone is quirky, offbeat, sweet, and yet the personal is always mixed in with the historical events of our times. The narrator beats around the bush. She puts off the inevitable. At the start, we know there are good days and bad. But for anyone coming to the book without knowing a thing about the story behind it, Angèle at first refuses to reveal what is wrong, referring only to the “combined attack that hit me close to four years ago.”

She lives with around 100 other patients in a home on Main Street, Shediac, “a mischievous band of brothers that loves to party.”

Quirky life lessons are scattered throughout the text — “No one is ever going to cast you in bronze if you smile” — and we learn about Angèle’s time spent dancing and going to raves in Montreal, “I think therefore I am” becoming “I move there I live.” And now that she can’t move? What does that make her now?

She’s lonely, for a start. Her daughters don’t make the 20-minute trip along the highway to visit her, too “busy growing up.” She’s been robbed of her femininity. And she’s learned that “thirty-five is young to stop walking, swimming, cycling, rowing, skating, snowboarding, slaloming down the slopes, and coming back home rosy-cheeked from a day’s snowshoeing.” But bitter? Not for a second.

Eddie overcompensates perhaps, adding too much sugar to make up for the bitter lemon, painting too many rainbows to brighten the dark skies. In one larger than life episode after the other, Angèle learns from her friends at the home that “everything was possible.”

See? Eddie seems to be telling us. Things aren’t so bad now. She still has her humour, her personality… her life. That might be true (both in the novel and in reality), but the story shines brightest when talking about the illness and the impact it has had on her life. It is at its dullest when talking about the crazy gang of patients and their escapades. At its weakest when most resembling a kind of intimate diary in which not very much happens. At its most powerful when the narrator looks us in the eye and tells us simply, heartbreakingly, Look at what I had. And it’s all been taken away from me:

“Sometimes people say, when trying to explain a catastrophe, that the victim was in the wrong place at the wrong time. That wasn’t true for me. I was exactly where I should have been, right on time for my fate.

The last time I walked on my two legs was to go see the girls in their little Plexiglas box to say night night, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite.

A few hours later, the combined attack of woes struck. A devastating mix of hypertension, hyperpoisoning, hypervirus, and completely overwhelmed cardiac muscle. The four of them charged at me with the brute force of a hurricane.

No one spares a thought for the billions of neurons in our brains until the day they decide to down tools. Starved of oxygen, mine panicked, pushed each other out of the way, and probably killed each other. Once a ceasefire had been declared, they counted their dead on the battlefield. It was too late for me to get out of bed and turn the episode into an interesting piece of dinner party conversation. At any rate, I’d already been brought to a bigger hospital, where state-of-the-art equipment and an armada of carers managed to resuscitate me. In the meantime, I floated about in an in-between state, unaware of the panic around me.

One day I opened my eyes in my straitjacket for the very first time. The faces of loved ones paraded by me, along with a collection of green, white, and blue smocks. I summoned all my energy to shake the wires I was connected to, to show I wanted out of there. I wanted to hold my daughters in my arms again, for everyone to leave us alone. Endless days and nights passed, and no one seemed to see or understand me.

The smocks spoke clearly and their prognosis fell into my ears like a lead cask into a well. Coma. No reaction. Vegetative state.

‘Unplug her,’ I heard them say to my family gathered around in such impressive numbers that I immediately suspected it wasn’t a day like any other.

‘Just one moment!’ I roared at the top of my lungs.

That was when Népenthès came into my life like a saviour. “You can blink,” he told me. He didn’t need to say it twice. I started blinking until the wires I’d at first wanted to be rid of weren’t unplugged. […]

‘Why me?’ I asked myself, of course, as soon as I understood that my body had been sent to a desert island, that the ocean liners would parade by on the horizon without ever seeing me.”

Translation and review by Peter McCambridge

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