‘In the End They Told Them All to Get Lost’ by Laurence Leduc-Primeau (Review)

While I’m always keen to see what QC Fiction (purveyors of finest fiction from Quebec) have been up to, with the weather turning rather inclement down here in Melbourne, I was a little hesitant about turning my attention to the Great White North (or the territories abutting it, at least).  Luckily, though, the publisher’s latest release takes us far away from Canada as we follow a young woman on a voyage of discovery to Latin America, where the climate is far warmer.  There’s a lot to see and do, even if it’s all initially overwhelming, but perhaps the most interesting part of the story is what our friend is trying to get away from…

*****
Laurence Leduc-Primeau’s In the End They Told Them All to Get Lost (translated by Natalia Hero, review copy courtesy of the publisher) starts with a young woman lying on her bed in a cramped room.  This is Chloé, a young Canadian woman visiting an unnamed South American country (although she initially sees little beyond the four walls of her shabby new home), and she seems as confused as the reader undoubtedly will be.  Whatever she came here for, we’re not sure she’s found it, and she’s certainly not going to get very far by talking to a stain on her wall.

Gradually, Chloé begins to come out of her shell (and her room), chatting with her housemates and starting to socialise, eventually even getting a job.  However, every time it seems that she’s enjoying her life, there comes a step back as she remembers something, whatever it was that drove her to leave her country in the first place.  The scorching weather and the warmth of the new friends she makes just aren’t enough to melt the memories frozen inside her – now if we could just find out what they are…

In the End They Told Them All to Get Lost is a short, enjoyable book, albeit one many readers will probably find a rather frustrating read.  The novel consists of a large number of short sections told in the first-person, with some of the early pieces very brief indeed, and the writer skillfully represents the experiences of a young woman in an alien culture, struggling to make sense of a new language and a strange environment.  Anyone who has lived in a foreign country will empathise with what Chloé goes through – until you’ve done it, you have no idea how tricky something as mundane as grocery shopping can be in another language:

I want cucumbers.  Zanahoria?  Concumbre?  I think they’re asking me how many.  Dos.  I signal with my hand at the same time to be sure.  She fills a bag, weighs it, adds more.  What is she doing?  Two, I said two!  The scale says two kilos.  I give up.  I pay her.
p.25 (QC Fiction, 2019)

Sometimes you just have to chalk these things up to experience…

As the young Canadian begins to spend more time outside her room, we are slowly introduced to her housemates.  There’s the ever-friendly Emilio, glamorous Adriana from Barcelona and poor Matías with his on-off boyfriend – although Chloé initially spends more time in the company of the cleaner, Luz, not to mention Betty, a dog who delights in getting under Chloé’s feet (and in producing surprises for Chloé’s feet to step into).  Soon, she gets a job at a small theatre and even finds some potential partners, so it seems as if she’s destined for a happy ending.

However, this tale of a foreigner adjusting to life overseas is only part of the story, with the reason for Chloé’s decision to move hovering in the background.  She’s obviously running from something, but there aren’t many hints as to exactly what has brought her here:

On that day in February, I let myself slide to the floor.  The front door was wide open.  It must have been -20 outside.  My neighbour found me lying on the floor motionless.  He wanted to call an ambulance.  I said no, nothing the ER can fix.  He set me up in the living room.  Put a cushion under my head. (p.75)

Slowly, she gives us glimpses of her past, but they’re few and far between.  It’s almost as if she’s afraid to open up about her past, even to herself.

Leduc-Primeau’s book is a quick and easy read and can be lots of fun, acting as a vicarious literary excursion.  We share the joys of living in a new language and the way greater fluency opens more doors.  The more proficient Chloé becomes in Spanish, the more she can do, with a visit to a football match and even dance classes with a rather demanding teacher.  The writer catches the wonder of the moments when it all clicks and the despair of the many times it doesn’t (this is all *very* familiar…).

Yet, it has to be said that the book can also be fairly frustrating.  While deliberate, the lack of information about Chloé’s history means the reader always has a nagging feel of only really getting half the story, and that never changes.  With no real resolution or closure, there’s a risk of what is a fairly short work seeming a little lightweight; certainly, this reader would have preferred to learn a little more about what drove the narrator to head thousands of kilometres south.

Overall, it’s still an interesting read, though, and other readers may respect Leduc-Primeau’s decision to keep them in the dark.  The book is at its best when focusing on language, and the magical and frustrating experience of adapting to a new tongue:

There are moments, sometimes even whole minutes, when I can understand without having to translate.  It’s sort of subconcious.  Their lips will move, they’ll make sounds and, in my head, words will arrive and form images that make connections.  But if I stop to make sense of the mechanism, I lose everything.  Their sounds become abstract noises again and line my brain with tones and accents that pile up, waiting to be put to use. (p.32)

Alas, this could also sum up my reading of In the End… – every time I thought I was getting into the book, the meaning slipped away.  Perhaps you’ll have more luck unravelling Chloé’s secrets…

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