After a quick tour of Montreal nightlife earlier this week, our latest post sees us returning to the Quebec metropolis for another night (or two) on the town. Today’s book starts off in a similar fashion to the last one, with a woman in her twenties struggling through an awkward period of her life. However, that’s where the similarities end, as my latest reading choice soon takes a rather unusual turn, landing us in a Russian prisoner-of-war camp in the middle of World War Two. How did we get there from downtown Montreal? Well, there’s only one way to find out 😉
Mélissa Verreault’s Behind the Eyes We Meet (translated by Arielle Aaronson, review copy courtesy of QC Fiction) starts with a series of letters exchanged by two young Italians, Sergio and Luisa, back in 1946. With the young man recovering from tuberculosis at a sanatorium, the letters are the only way for them to stay in touch, and the promises they make in them point towards a long future together when Sergio is finally allowed to return home.
However, this ideal of young, separated lovers soon gives way to a very different kind of story. The first major section of the novel drags the reader off to Montreal, where Emmanuelle (Manue for short), crashlands into our lives in a scene involving a pigeon, a cyclist and an unlikely (and brief) sexual encounter. We learn about her birth, her current (flaky) lifestyle and a nice man she meets, before this hundred-page chick-lit novel suddenly takes another unexpected turn. Now, we’re in Russia, where Sergio, serving in the Italian army in 1943, has been captured and begins a long walk in the snow. If only we knew how all of this fits together…
Behind The Eyes We Meet is a slightly odd book in many ways. After reading the first two sections, it seems part Bridget Jones’ Diary (an adult version) and part Second-World-War epic, which is a rather unusual combination to say the least. There is a link between these disparate strands, of course, with a third section, told from the point of view of Manue’s new boyfriend, proving key to the story and helping the reader understand how it all fits together.
There are several similarities with my previous read, Aphelia, in Manue’s many mishaps in the first section. Shortly after her first (adult) appearance, a minor traffic incident serves merely as an opportunity to pick up a good-looking cyclist who happens to be on the scene:
“Can we just stop pretending that we don’t want to get in each other’s pants?”
“I’m supposed to meet a friend at the movies later, so we don’t have much time.”
“You definitely cut right to the chase, don’t you?”
“You’ve got me.”
“Take your pants off.”
p.31 (QC Fiction, 2017)
There’s nothing wrong with a grown woman knowing what she wants, but the more we learn about Manue, the more we see that she isn’t really happy with her life, or her friends. It takes a chance encounter at the cinema with Fabio, an Italian immigrant, to make her see that there might be something better out there for her.
At that point, though, it’s time to put Manue and her issues aside for a few years as Behind the Eyes We Meet becomes a very different kind of book. This middle section portraying young Sergio’s experiences in Russia as a prisoner of war is sobering, powerful writing. On his long march to the labour camp which is his destination, death is a constant companion:
Some of the men awoke as the sun rose, relieved that their eyes still opened and that they had made it to see another day. Others stared vacantly, their faces purple and limbs as stiff as a teenage boy in love for the first time. It was up to the survivors to take care of the bodies of the dozens of men who died each day. Once the corpses were thrown into a ditch, the march resumed without fuss. (p.163)
And yet, there’s far worse to come: the never-ending walk is followed by a hellish train journey, before the exhausted survivors arrive at the camp itself – or at least, the site where they’ll be made to construct it. It’s all certainly very different from Manue’s adventures back in Montreal.
At the risk of giving plot elements away, it won’t take the most attentive of readers to realise that Fabio is likely to be the connection between Manue and Sergio, and that proves to be the case. In the third part of the book, we switch to his point of view, and as he and Manue begin to become more comfortable with each other, the focus moves on to the letters he’s inherited, which slowly bring the ideas of the book together as a whole.
How successful it all is, though, is another story. Behind the Eyes We Meet was the only QC Fiction book I had put off reading, and probably with good reason. It’s a strange, hybrid sort of novel that almost seems designed to polarise readers. Those who enjoy Manue’s section will probably be dismayed by the grim war-time action, while readers who appreciate Sergio’s story might not make it that far, having grown bored with Manue’s immature antics. This mix of comic farce and sombre description, juxtaposing a search for a stolen goldfish and depictions of death in the tundra is a risky decision, and even with the final section, I’m not convinced it really comes together as it should.
However, there is a lot to like about Verreault’s novel, and if there’s one lesson to be learned here, it’s perhaps about putting things into perspective. Manue’s issues seem big to her, but when compared to Sergio’s, they’re merely passing irritations. Towards the end of the book, Fabio has a similar epiphany:
It’s just hit me. Manue and I like to think we’re so special, with lives that are full of improbable anecdotes and convoluted destinies. We never realized how normal that is. Everyone has an incredible story to tell. There’s no such thing as a straightforward life. (p.360)
A reminder, then, that everyone has their own issues and history – and that there are far more important things in life than a lousy date and a missing goldfish…