Every day is the day you died. (p43)
As the blurb advises us “a man loses his daughter while swimming one summer’ and this very short novella is a lament, a letter or confessional to a very young daughter lost under tragic circumstances. An event that becomes “just a line or two in the local paper. A tragic accident, a momentary distraction with fatal consequences.” But for our writer that day is relived over and over again, and it is the day where his search for his daughter, in every drop of water, “behind every rock, in every bush, in every wave” begins.
Our protagonist takes his grief into isolation, and the opening two pages bring forth a raft of images;
My voice has changed and it keeps catching me off guard. It isn’t mine anymore. It isn’t even a voice anymore. More like the rasping, creaking sound of a raven or locust. (p10)
Besides the usual associations of bad luck, ravens also connect the material world with the world of spirits, In Greek mythology they are associated with Apollo and were his messengers into the moral world. In Christian lore they protect the bodies of Saints. And locusts are associated with plague proportions, destroying every living thing. Such vivid imagery in a few short sentences.
Our writer of this lament takes his grief to sea, a search for the missing body of his drowned daughter’s body. Gestation is associated with the sea, “as time passes, somewhere deep beneath the surface, the ocean’s belly swells with a rumbling, palpable electric charge.” (p10)
Childhood games are associated with the macabre, “I draw a hopscotch court on the deck with the chalk of my bones. It runs from heaven to hell.” (p62)
Filled with recollections, looping revisits to the fateful day of his daughter’s disappearance, where the memories change, this is a deeply affecting tale of ceaseless grief. A grief that our writer takes into isolation and scribbles, later with a compass tip and squid ink, covering his skin. His grief, his memories, his guilt, all physically become himself.
Looping from the present, to memories of his daughter, and the period between her death and his launching a vessel to sea, this work wholly embodies his grief. Our protagonist explains to his daughter his life since the fateful day where a moment of distraction leads to tragedy. His personal and marriage breakdown, his withdrawal from society, his visions. Akin to an epic poem, every sentence contains a link to her memory.
Did you know that in some very dry countries they string nets among the clouds in the mountaintops? The fog gets trapped in the nets, then trickles down to the villages below.
You’re like one of those nets stretched out inside me. (p61)
In every incarnation of water, he sees his dead daughter, in tears, in drinking water, in rivers, in puddles, in rain, in the sea.
The sheer size of the sea, where our writer searches for his daughter’s body, becomes the sheer size of his grief.
Elias Canetti, in his non-fiction work ‘Crowds and Power’ (translated by Carol Stewart) gives this explanation of the sea as a symbol;
The sea is multiple, it moves, and it is dense and cohesive. Its multiplicity lies in its waves; they constitute it. They are innumerable; the sea-farer is completely surrounded by them. The sameness of their movement does not preclude difference of size. They are never entirely still. The wind coming from outside them determines their motion; they beat in this or that direction in accordance with its command. The dense coherence of the waves is something which men in a crowd know well. It entails a yielding to others as though they were oneself, as though there were no strict division between oneself and them. There is no escape from this compliance and thus the consequent impetus and feeling of strength is something engendered by all the units together. The specific nature of this coherence among men is unknown. The sea, while not explaining, expresses it. (p80)
In this novella the sea represents the writer’s grief. “It is dense and cohesive”, “never entirely still”, “there is no escape from this compliance”.
An extremely powerful soliloquy that addresses every parent’s fear, losing a child, in a poetic and powerful manner, this is a work that is deeper and more complex than its apparent parts. A very short book that demands re-reading. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see this debut work appear on the Best Translated Book Awards longlist and will be eagerly awaiting Charles Quimper’s later writings.
A review copy of this novella was provided by the publisher QC Fiction, a publisher of contemporary Quebec fiction translated into English.