by Stéphanie Boulay
translated by Ghislaine Lefranc
Enfield & Wizenty, 2020
I’ve always loved a well-crafted coming of age story. When done well, the loss of innocence and the pains of adolescence are utterly heartbreaking. In Stéphanie Boulay’s debut novel, Where the Waters Meet, the author does away with tired tropes and offers us a fresh perspective of this period of transformation.
“I live in a place where, at night, I hear the mice dying,” a young girl narrates. From the first page, I was struck by her voice, which at times sounded childish and at others, filled with poetry. “I love the freshness of nature when it’s beautiful,” she says. “I swim in it.” Her age is somewhere between twelve and fifteen. She lives in a house that’s “not super-super clean,” with a woman named Titi who may be her mother, or perhaps her sister. They’re poor and live apart from the nearby village, where two rivers run and join together: “One half flows clear, the other brown, with a sharp line down the middle.” This river is both a physical and metaphorical barrier, separating the villagers from the Indigenous people on the opposite shore. On its surface, this is a love story, but not the kind you’d expect. In the protagonist’s world, men are tangential. They offer the kind of love that “fills you up and then empties you out.” While the thrills and pangs of romance do play a role in the story, Boulay focuses on the deeper, more complex love that binds family and female relationships.
Wildness and our connection to nature are important motifs in Where the Waters Meet. Throughout the novel, the protagonist feels a sense of belonging to Indigenous culture, despite her own colonialist perception of it. Like “the barbarians,” she’s an outsider. She’s not like other teenagers. “I fidget. I don’t know how to write on the line of my notebook. I cry at least once a day,” she says. At school, she’s “a moron.” She daydreams of running free, making “leather boots with multicoloured laces,” becoming “a real wolf hunter-trainer,” and speaking with animals. Wildness is threaded into her sense of identity, and she uses it to understand herself and the world.
One of the most compelling themes in Boulay’s work is mental health. Titi’s struggle with depression is crushing. She flushes away her medication and sleeps for days. She falls in love with terrible men. With compassion, Boulay shows how depression can damage a family. “Titi, why are two-footed animals so bad?” the protagonist asks. “Because they’re sad,” Titi replies. “Sometimes they want everything to be shrouded in darkness.” Boulay’s young narrator also has a unique way of seeing the world. She’s “special.” She’s slower than her classmates and can’t be left alone. She avoids other teens and her body “always seems to say goodbye.” Her language, which ranges from imaginative to absurd, is wholly unique, and that’s what makes the book such an enjoyable read.
Where the Waters Meet is Ghislaine Lefranc’s first literary translation, and she approaches Boulay’s story with precision and care. Her writing has the same organic flow as Boulay’s, and she successfully recreates the protagonist’s particular voice. But in some cases, I found that Lefranc stuck too close to the French, choosing literal translations over more creative solutions. While her faithfulness to the source text is unwavering, my favourite passages were those where she allowed her own style to shine through. Both Lefranc and Boulay are exciting new voices in the Quebec literary scene, and I look forward to seeing more of their work.
Short as it is, this book is a slow burn, one that reaches its emotional peak on the last page. At its core, Where the Waters Meet is a coming-of-age piece, but it’s also an exploration of womanhood and the spark we feel when we connect with another person, “through the joining of souls and the coinciding of life’s small things.”
Review by Megan Callahan