“The Keeper’s Daughter,” a review

by Jean-François Caron

translated by W. Donald Wilson

Talonbooks, 2015

In The Keeper’s Daughter, like in many works of fiction, names carry weight. They offer insight into characters, hint at the histories of places, and sometimes even reference other literary works. But in Jean-François Caron’s novel, the changing of names is just as significant as the names themselves. Throughout the story, names are invented, substituted, forgotten, and omitted; none can be fully believed or trusted. As the story unfolds, the reader is left to struggle with the uncertainty of identity and the unreliability of memory:

“As soon as she sees me, she calls me Dorothée. […] It’s no use telling her I was born in Port-au-Prince, or that since I turned two the sky of Quebec is the only one I’ve laid eyes on, or that Dorothée is not my name at all: she doesn’t hear anything. Rose Brouillard hears only herself.”

Published in 2012 (Rose Brouillard, le film) and translated into English by Donald Wilson in 2015, The Keeper’s Daughter centres on an isolated fishing village in northern Quebec called Sainte-Marie, renamed Sainte-Marée-de-l’Incantation. To draw tourists to the village, the tourism bureau hires a documentary filmmaker to find the mysterious Rose Brouillard, an old woman who was raised by her father, the fisherman Onile, on an island offshore. At only 140 pages, Caron’s book is structured like a series of video takes, uncut and out of order, and told in a chorus of voices. His story blends the experienced and the imagined, making it impossible to separate truth and lies. Through the blurry and unreliable lens of various characters, the reader is told about Rose’s childhood on the island, her melancholic mother, and her father, the keeper without a lighthouse.

While all names are meaningful in Caron’s novel, Rose Brouillard’s is particularly symbolic. Suffering from dementia, her mind is a jumble of memories wrapped in fog:

“The islands are dropped words, outstripped thought. Like splattered chapters. Heading in every direction. If there was a bridge between the islands, my memories would be linked. For I’ve got all these islands inside my head. I can’t invent bridges between them anymore.”

Rose’s state of mind is at the centre of the story and dictates the structure of the novel. Caron’s tangled timeline, sharp transitions, and multitude of perspectives force the reader to experience the story in a specific way — with confusion and uncertainty. Within this conceptual form, Caron’s writing is gorgeous and evocative; every scene is described in rich and tangible detail. Throughout the novel, Caron combines short, poetic fragments and trailing sentences, and Wilson skilfully recreates this lovely style in his translation:

“N’oublierai jamais. Cette image et la sensation. Du sol enfin stable sous mon corps gourd. Des vagues qui n’existent plus que de son. De la douleur aux genoux écorchés, aux pieds aussi, ensanglantés et sales. Et du froid. De celui qui endort.”

“I’ll never forget. That picture, and the sensation. At last, firm ground under my numb body. Waves that are gone, but for the sound. The smart of my grazed knees and my feet, bleeding and dirty. And the cold. A cold that sends you to sleep.”

One aspect of Caron’s writing that I initially found jarring was his combination of first and second person narration, which Wilson also recreates in his translation. The point of view changes constantly, often within the same sentence, and I sometimes found myself stumbling over pronouns and losing the narrative thread. This blending of perspectives, however, is an essential part of the novel’s cinematic structure. By referring to themselves in the first and third person, each character can be viewed as both real and fictional, like actors playing their respective roles:

“Now I’m Rose, talking too fast, wanting to tell everything the moment she remembers it, her tongue entangled in stories that jostle together, it’s like inside her head.”

The Keeper’s Daughter is above all a gorgeous and heartbreaking exploration of dementia. Caron superbly captures the loneliness, confusion, and fear that come with forgetting, and examines the ties that bind memory and identity. In his translation, Wilson recreates the poetry and rhythm of the French while conveying the blend of sadness and hope that permeates the story:

“And then, for a moment, I’m just myself, an old woman kneeling among the wildflowers fed by the open sea and the salt grasses.”

Review by Megan Callahan

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