Review by Carly Rosalie Vandergriendt
Eric Dupont’s Life in the Court of Matane, a reflection on a forty-year-old man’s unsettled childhood, begins with a leap:
“July 1976. Montreal. The 21st Olympic Games. A tiny Romanian gymnast stands on a mat and waves to the crowd. For thirty seconds, she swings back and forth between two wooden bars, defying the laws of gravity. Her landing is perfect. […] Nadia Comaneci […] had just revealed to Quebec’s metropolis the possibilities of weightlessness.” (15)
Sprawled on a shag carpet before a television screen in a living room some 450 kilometres east of Montreal, a child named Eric—Life in the Court’s narrator—is marked by this feat, as so many witnesses must have been.
Spanning 1976 to 1983, this novel, which was originally published in French in 2008 under the title Bestiaire, is chock full of similar Quebec “zeitgeist” moments, accompanied by the narrator’s eccentric and often scathing reflections on them. A cast of cultural figures lend authenticity, with Jacques Brel, Elvis Presley, Tintin, Margaret Thatcher, Laika the Soviet space dog, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, and Réné Levesque among the fray. There are memories of long, seemingly unbearable winters, greasy dinners at casse-croûtes, and an education proffered by nuns. And naturally, there are dreams of sovereignty, and the divisive question of separation.
But in Eric’s case, it’s his father’s insistence on separation that has the most profound impact, driving the narrative: “[My father] had made separatism a way of life. […] The day he no longer had children or a wife or a country to separate from, he started drinking to separate from himself.” (17) Eric’s father is referred to as King Henry VIII throughout this story, according to his propensity for wives. In the first chapter, he has left the mother of his children, turning her into Catherine of Aragon, his “forlorn first wife.” (18) Eric and his sister live with a foster family and then their mother, though she is too poor to take care of them. At last, they are whisked away against their will to Matane, a semi-industrial town on the Gaspé Peninsula, where their father holds court with Anne Boleyn, his second wife. Hence, the book’s title.
Visits with their mother are not permitted. Nor is any mention of her. In Matane, Eric’s life is characterized by a series of moves, along with often unpredictable rules and edicts handed down by Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Eric and his sister “[take their] memories underground. […] The beach was somewhere to hide out and bring up her memory.” (54) On the shores of the St. Lawrence, they act out scenes from their former life with their mother, and in one of the narrative’s most poignant moments, they come across a beached minke whale: “We watched it die. It took hours.” (60) The dead creature, whose ribs are later pillaged by a visiting hippie, seems an apt symbol of the profound sense of loss the children live with.
Anne Boleyn, whose real name is never disclosed, goes on to give birth to a child, Eric’s half-brother, but within six or seven years—under the increasing strain caused by King Henry VIII’s alcoholism—this second family façade crumbles. Though Eric and his sister seem to have at last grown into a kind of peaceful co-existence with her, Anne Boleyn, along with her son, is permanently ousted. A certain Jane Seymour promptly takes her place as the new Queen. But by that point, Eric is aware that all he has to do is wait until he is old enough to leave home, and in one of the story’s streaks of magical realism, he forms a pact with a Great Horned Owl to one day make him “enough [wind] to fly away on […].” (237) The world beyond Gaspésie beckons.
The strength of Life in the Court is in the author’s re-creation of his childhood point-of-view, a quality that also speaks to the skill of Peter McCambridge’s translation. Through Eric’s eyes, we experience not only the wonder and magic of childhood, but also a crippling sense of powerlessness. Adults call the shots in this story, and Eric and his sister have little agency in decisions made. Though there are elements that warrant more development—the sister’s character, for instance, or the taunts of “faggot” and “homo” the narrator experiences in the schoolyard—on the whole, this was a highly original read, especially in the imagery employed by Dupont.
When Eric at last escapes, we are reminded of the prodigious young gymnast at the 1976 Olympics: “Then, as light as Nadia Comaneci flying between two uneven bars, I let go of the upper bar forever to sketch a long curve eastward across the night sky.” (257)
Carly Rosalie Vandergriendt is a Montréal-based writer of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Malahat Review, Riddle Fence, and The Columbia College Literary Review. Visit her at www.carlyrosalie.com or follow her @carlyrosalie on Twitter.