“Serafim and Claire,” a review

by Mark Lavorato

House of Anansi Press, 2014

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Montreal, 1928. Claire Audette is gravely ill, though we don’t know from what. Portugal, 1919. A reeling drunk, Serafim Viera, is about to make the most impulsive decision of his life, but we don’t know why. Thus opens Mark Lavorato’s third novel, Serafim and Claire, an epic spanning two continents and chronicling the political, religious, and economic upheaval of the 1920s. The novel begins as a slow burn; alternating chapters have the reader travelling from one city to the other before we have a chance to grasp the entirety of each character’s situation. It takes a long time to piece together Serafim, a Portuguese street photographer, and Claire, a Montrealer struggling to make a name for herself on the dance circuit. But the wait is well worth it: Lavorato’s storytelling both gives us a vivid snapshot of each character’s life and leaves us full of questions, craving the next chapter.

We slowly learn over the next hundred pages that Claire’s infection is due to a botched abortion and Serafim’s pounding head the result of a thwarted love affair. But what could have served to divert each character’s own trajectory is instead used to fuel their drive to create art. Talented, but not exceptionally so, Claire becomes obsessed with attaining stardom and will stop at no means. Serafim’s dogged persistence follows him to Montreal where he continues to take candid photos that do not pay. Lavorato spends the first half of the book carefully crafting each story, building up momentum like a sputtering candle whose flame comes closer and closer to lighting a fuse.

Indeed, Lavorato uses this incendiary imagery throughout the novel. Once Claire (whose name means “light”) and Serafim (whose name means “fire”) collide, they are sucked into a maelstrom where the flash of a photographer’s bulb sets off a chain reaction leaving an apartment engulfed in vicious flames.

“In front of them, the fire blossomed and bloated. […] The flames danced higher, even higher, climbing invisible stairs into the night, ginger hips rolling, arms swaying, reaching ecstatic, while reeling embers from their fingertips up into the sky, sparks that lifted and soared through the updrafts, only to vanish abruptly into skeletons of miniature parachutes, snuffed out and drifting, already forgotten […]”

It is Claire who persuades Serafim to take the picture of a prominent councillor having an affair with a dancer. She proposes blackmail, promising that the two of them will be rich beyond their dreams in a few short days. But the reader can sense the downward spiral before it even begins: Claire assures Serafim that “Nothing can go wrong now… The hardest part is behind us. You’ll see.” Yet a hundred pages still remain to the story.

Lavorato’s strength is his sharp eye for detail, his vivid descriptions of Montreal in the bustling, seedy Roaring 20s. He tries to tackle many of the decade’s biggest issues, from women’s liberation, the influence of the Church, immigration and anti-fascist sentiment, the economic depression, and even the French/English divide. While some of these themes become lost in the momentum of the narration, Lavorato has an undeniable talent for describing an everyday Montreal scene as if it were one of Serafim’s own exposures:

“As the winter truly dug itself in […] Serafim was astounded that a state of emergency was not being called. In fact, to all appearances, it was even the contrary. These people almost welcomed the cold and snow, reveled in the way it piled up, high, higher, banking the streets and drifting onto the storefronts. People shoveled it as if they were transporting boxes on moving day, simply, methodically, and as a matter of course, digging out cars, converting their horse-drawn vehicles into sleighs and cutters, and draping themselves in thick animal skins to ride outside in the freezing elements — mitts, woolen hats, fur gauntlets, and muskox robes.”

Despite what the title may have you believe, this is no love story. It is a novel about rash decisions, about the interconnectedness of our lives, and about chasing dreams. Neither of the characters is particularly endearing; Claire is driven to the point of ruthlessness, Serafim seems continually lost in a world bent on breaking him. But there is a sweetness to their story, a redemptive quality to its end. It is the kind of novel that keeps you up with the bedside lamp on until the last page is turned.

Review by Arielle Aaronson

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