kamouraskaKamouraska, by Anne Hébert, is another of the novels I got to read as a result of preparing for the Québec and Cajun Culture class I’m teaching this semester. (I wrote about The Road to Altamont, by Gabrielle Roy, here.) As it opens, Mme. Rolland is sitting at the bedside of her dying husband:

The summer passed by completely. Mme Rolland, against her custom, didn’t leave her house on Parloir Street. It was very beautiful out, and very hot. But neither Mme. Rolland, nor the children went to the country that summer. Her husband was going to die and she felt a deep peace. This man was going very softly, without suffering too much, with a laudable discretion.

But abruptly, without warning, these measured phrases turn abbreviated and panting, and the narration goes from third person to first:

The city isn’t safe right now. No doubt about it. They’re watching me. Spying on me. Following me. Crowding me. Walking behind me. This woman, yesterday, attached herself to my shadow.

This book is the story of Mme. Rolland, also known as Mme. Tassy, also known as Elisabeth d’Aulnieres, who married at 16 and fell in love with an American doctor. In 1839, she conspired to murder her husband, underwent a trial and brief imprisonment, and, upon being set free, remarried. The story tells the whole drama of her marriage, her love at first sight, and the terrible blood on the snow at her first husband’s estate of Kamouraska. At the time of the narration, she’s a proper wife and mother of eleven, proving to all the world that she was always innocent. Or was she?

One of the most interesting things about this novel is the layers of identity in the narration. Sometimes Elisabeth talks about herself in the third person, sometimes in the first person. When she dissociates herself from her actions, she’s “Mme. Rolland,” but when she’s talking about her own deepest emotions, she’s “me, I, Elisabeth…” The power of her fear, her love, and her anger comes through the multiple levels of the past: dreams, hallucinations, memories. The expectations of society, that women who rebel against the norm are crazy at best and criminals at worst, press Elisabeth into two stifling marriages and one outrageous act. But who is the true victim? Elisabeth is an unreliable narrator, to say the least, and her story about what happened that cold day at Kamouraska may be more false than true.

This was a tremendously enjoyable novel. One of the real perks of my job is getting to read things I never would find otherwise, and all in the name of professional development. So far, the literature of Québec has been a revelation: lovely and charming or dark and sinister, but all worth reading.

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7 Responses to Kamouraska

  1. Melanie says:

    Anne Hébert is a fantastic writer. Have you read any of her other novels? What other Quebecois literature did you read/teach in this class? I agree with you, it seems to be either lovely & charming or dark & sinister.

  2. Jenny says:

    Melanie — I haven’t had the pleasure of reading anything but this. What else would you recommend? Besides this, I’m teaching La Route d’Altamont, as you saw, and two plays by Jean Barbeau, Joualez-moi d’amour and Manon Lastcall, then a film, Invasions Barbares. I’m also teaching Pelagie-la-Charrette, by Antonine Maillet, who isn’t exactly Quebecoise but Acadian, by her own definition. Close enough! The class is a lot of fun!

  3. adevotedreader says:

    I’m always interested by unreliable narrators, and haven’t read any Quebec literature so will look out for this. Plotwise, it reminds me of Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood and Fred and Eadie by Jill Dawson, both of which I found intriguing and very enjoyable.

  4. priscilla says:

    I love stories with unreliable narrators–when they’re done well, and it sounds like this one is.

  5. Jenny says:

    Sarah — I can’t comment on either of those comparisons, as I haven’t read them (Alias Grace one of the few of Margaret Atwood’s I couldn’t get on with.) My own thoughts were about other women who killed to get out of loveless marriages — mostly killed themselves, though. Interesting contrast.

    Priscilla — very well done. The style and the layers of narration are brilliant.

  6. litlove says:

    I loved this book when I read it (in French in fact, also for university teaching) and didn’t think anybody else knew about it. I’m delighted to read your review which brings it all back to me. I must read more Hebert – she was a treat.

  7. Jenny says:

    litlove — mon semblable, mon frère (so to speak)! I read it in French, too, and the course I’m teaching is in French. (The translations above are my own — I don’t have an English copy.) I often wonder about translations, especially (for some reason) from Russian. So much more nuance and vigor in the original, at least in the few languages I know. And I agree that Hébert was a treat!

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