While much of my Canadian reading (including the subject of Monday’s review) has come courtesy of QC Fiction, I have managed to get to a few books from other publishers over the past few years, such as François Blais’ Document One and Larry Tremblay’s The Orange Grove. Recently, I was asked by another small publisher, Véhicule Press, to take a look at a couple of titles they put out under their Esplanade Books fiction imprint, and today sees the first of those reviews. It’s a shortish book, but it tackles an important topic and provides the reader with an opportunity to leave the big cities of Quebec behind as we head north instead, to see what life is really like. You see, as much as it might seem that way, not everyone in Quebec speaks French, and it’s time to hear another side to the province’s story…
Juliana Léveillé-Trudel’s Nirliit (translated by Anita Anand) takes us away from the French-speaking parts of Quebec as we board several planes and head up to the province’s northern extremes. The story takes place in the small town of Salluit, not far from the Arctic Circle, where the summer days can seem endless, but perhaps not as long as the cold winter nights. The vast waters and the colours of the night sky make it a place of immense beauty, yet as we soon learn, there’s also great sadness hiding in this small dwelling on the coast of the Arctic Sea.
The title is actually the Inuktitut word for ‘snow geese’ and is chosen for the migratory connotation it lends the story. The narrator is a woman who flies north every summer to work in one of the Salluit schools, and she’s not the only visitor. There are also many construction workers who, unlike the narrator, actually stay there for most of the year. However, even these outsiders eventually leave, and it’s the locals who are left behind that the writer is most interested in.
Although the cover has the words ‘A novel’ just below the title, that doesn’t really describe Nirliit. The book is divided into two sections, with the first part a lengthy monologue told in chapters, in which the narrator talks to Ava, an indigenous woman we soon learn has disappeared in suspicious circumstances. As the speaker laments her lost friend, she describes the town she’s returning to for another summer, acting as our guide to an unfamiliar world.
In truth, the story is fictionalised reportage, with the writer (who has worked in the area each summer for many years) using her narrator to examine the lives of the locals, particularly those of women. She suspects that Ava has been murdered by her lover, another victim of a society where women are fair game and nobody really asks too many questions when they get hurt. We’re told stories of domestic violence and rape, with men abandoning women once they’ve tired of them, along with any resulting children (who, according to local customs, don’t always count as theirs).
It’s a vicious cycle, and the children growing up here seem doomed from the start. The narrator loves spending time with them but often notices the swift, brutal rush from childhood into adult life:
Maybe it’s the baggage they’re carrying that is just too heavy, maybe it’s the weight of all these Shakespearean tragedies that stick, so early, to their little bodies. For Andrew, maybe it’s his mother, who killed herself before he started school, and for Saala maybe it’s her alcoholic father. Maybe they manage not to think about it too much when they are younger, but later the reality finally gets to them, sinks in. Maybe.
pp.53/4 (Esplanade Books, 2018)
Certainly life isn’t fair to these young souls. Growing up surrounded by examples of violence and waste in a town where the only food is high-priced and low-quality, and there’s very little to do except kill time, many succumb to temptation and drift into drug- and alcohol-fuelled oblivion, with the sea always ready to accept anyone unwilling to put up with any more.
As you can imagine, Nirliit makes for fairly uncomfortable reading at times, but some readers may also be a little put off by the idea of seeing all this through the eyes of an outsider. From the start, Léveillé-Trudel is aware of her status as a privileged onlooker and is quick to assert that the white people in Salluit are part of the problem:
We are the new white missionaries. We preach healthy living. Don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t take drugs, don’t eat fast food, eat more fruit and veggies, get eight hours of sleep every night, go to bed early, exercise, don’t skip school or work, don’t litter, slow down when you’re driving your quads, wear a life vest when you’re in your boats, keep your firearms out of the reach of children, practice safe sex, don’t swear, say please and thank you when you ask for something, vaccinate your children and sterilize your dogs. You must find us incredibly irritating. (p.20)
The narrator’s guilt leads to her wanting to help, yet knowing she can’t really do much of use. However, many others are rather less concerned. The male workers fly in, earn money and fly out, often leaving a little souvenir to appear nine months later, and what was just a lucrative few months of boredom for them leaves the legacy of several ruined lives.
Unfortunately, the story the writer is telling is only too familiar. It’s something you can read about in other novels, like Anna Kim’s Greenland-set Anatomy of a Night, or in the newspaper most days. Here in Australia, we have a long history of mistreating and forcibly moving indigenous people, and any government help somehow always turns out to be misguided at best, and humiliating at worst. Like anyone, indigenous people need the prospect of a real future, one that doesn’t involve regular grudging hand-outs. Up in Salluit, the mining dollars the companies give back to the community bring a fleeting period of joy and consumption which disappears as soon as the hangovers kick in.
Having set up the background, Léveillé-Trudel then uses what we’ve heard in the first part and heads in another direction in the second to tell us a story set in Salluit. There’s a link to Ava, with this part, a novella focusing on a number of tangled relationships, featuring her son, Elijah. His uneasy life with Mataa, the mother of his child, is threatened when she falls for Félix, a white seasonal worker who stands out from the other men. Meanwhile, there are also problems for a local couple, Tayara and his aggressive partner Aleisha, from which the young man can only escape by flying south to Montreal.
It’s the same narrator, but here she takes a step back, with the impassioned pleading of the first section giving way to a slow-burning story of people struggling to keep their lives together. We’re given a closer look at one of the relationships between the white men and the local women, and we see how the ‘exploits’ of the local men lead to doubts as to the paternity of many children born in the town. The story is a fascinating piece in its own right, and only made more so by the background the first part provides.
As mentioned, I’m not personally convinced it’s really a novel, but it’s a fascinating book, nonetheless. Anand has done great work in capturing the different styles the author uses, ranging from the passionate, despairing tone of the first half and the storytelling style of the second, and the reader is swept along by the compelling story and voices. Nirliit provides an entertaining, informative and slightly upsetting insight into a very different part of Quebec, one the folk down in the cities may not appreciate. There’s no doubt that some of the blame for the societal issues lie with them, and yet:
Those people, like a shameful disease, a bad feeling that greets you at the edge of the sidewalk, a problem child who disgraces his parents. They have left their reserve or village, have somehow ended up on the cement paths of Montreal, Winnipeg or Vancouver. Now they reassure the busy passersby by confirming their prejudices: drunks, layabouts, irresponsible bums. (p.38)
It’s an uncomfortable truth, but one that needs to be faced, and Léveillé-Trudel’s book is a timely reminder that Canada’s not quite the perfect society it’s sometimes made out to be…