‘The Electric Baths’ by Jean-Michel Fortier (Review)

One of the most enjoyable (and strangest) of QC Fiction’s early releases was Jean-Michel Fortier’s The Unknown Huntsman, so I was happy to see that the small Quebec press were bringing out another of the writer’s books.  Once again translated by Katherine Hastings, it takes us off to a small corner of rural Quebec, where everything is ever so slightly off.  In what way, you might ask?  Well, come with me, and we’ll take a stroll through a rather strange village, and meet some intriguing people…

*****
The Electric Baths (review copy courtesy of the publisher) is an unusual short novel set in a village far from the bright lights of Quebec’s big cities.  It’s centred around a group of women going about their daily business, with little to distract them other than the odd chat and a weekly game of cards, but that changes when Louisa Louis, neé Lousie Beurre, turns up after more than a decade’s absence overseas.  She’s immediately the topic of all conversations, particularly for Renée Lepine, a housekeeper who was close to Louise before her sudden departure.

However, there’s more to life in the village than the appearance of the prodigal daughter.  There’s an old woman wandering around near a local spring, and rumours of someone, or something, roaming the woods at night.  Then there’s the local ‘great house’, Spencer Wood, where the owner is looking for help.  It’s here that we’ll find the baths of the title, hidden (as Renée is to learn) far underneath the house…

The Unknown Huntsman was a bizarre book with an eerie small community and a schizophrenic plot, and while The Electric Baths doesn’t go quite as far to bewilder its readers, it’s still a fascinating novel.  The small town life depicted is almost reminiscent of an Agatha Christie mystery.  There’s a village, as well as a host of nosy locals, but the crime seems to have been forgotten, and there’s no Miss Marple ready to sort things out.  However, as the book progresses, we’ll see that the dark tone is fully justified, as something’s definitely up here, even if it’s not initially clear what.

For the first part of the novel, Fortier’s story is more of a character piece.  We start with Renée, the housekeeper with the crippled leg, whose heart starts pounding at the thought of Louise’s return, before making the acquaintance of Louise herself, the flighty runaway with a past as an actress and circus worker.  From there we move on to some of the other village ladies, such as Bella, constantly placing adverts in newspapers in the hope of attracting a new partner, and Celeste, a well-off, hard-working woman who’s keen to help out anyone needing a hand.

Gradually, though, the writer starts to widen the scope, and the constant dark tone provides little clues as to what’s going on.  When Celeste walks home through the woods, she hears noises behind her, eventually recognising them as footsteps; there’s the old woman who keeps crossing the ladies’ paths, cursing those who she believes slight her.  As for Renée, she’s shocked to find out that her nightly sleep isn’t as deep as she’d thought – in fact, it’s far more active.

The baths of the title make their appearance about half-way through the book when Renée is taken on as help at Spencer Wood.  The lady of the house, Sarah Rosenberg, tells Renée of her late husband’s enthusiasm for saunas and baths, and as she gives her a tour of the house, it turns out that this is what she’s there for:

And yet, I am asking that you come here every night, at midnight.  That you open the doors.  Turn on the lights.  Go into the rooms.  Take a look around.  Make sure everything is normal.  Then, turn off the lights, close and lock the doors, and go back upstairs.  In fact, I would say it is your main chore, miss.
p.138 (QC Fiction, 2020)

In a moment, the story takes a turn towards a gothic Victorian novel, with the reader sharing Renée’s reluctance to descend the staircase each night, just to make sure there’s nothing (or nobody) there.

The Electric Baths is a clever book where we’re only really sure what’s happening when it’s finally over, which can make it a little frustrating at times.  The clues are there, but there are also plenty of red herrings, as the writer pulls the reader carefully in a certain direction, only to then dart off elsewhere.  At times, it’s a fairly light, airy read, with the women nattering away over cards or cheerfully getting through some housework, yet darker moments are never too far away (including a wonderfully gruesome scene around an old woman’s bed, where a difficult decision needs to be made quickly…).

With its short chapters and breezy style, it’s not a book that’ll take long to get through, and there’s a charm in its idiosyncratic narratorial intrusions:

The two women sat down on their stools, one at either end of the counter, in a long but comfortable silence.  They created a strange imbalance in the store that semed to lean more towards Bella; that actually did lean towards Bella, come to think of it, thanks to the crooked floor. (pp.29/30)

In many ways, it’s similar to The Unknown Huntsman, and you could imagine this being set just up the road from that hamlet in a slightly bigger village.  I’m not sure if this is the case, but it would be nice to think of these books as the first steps in Fortier’s creation of his own fictional corner of Quebec, a collection of locales where things are not quite right.

The Electric Baths is a fun, enjoyable read, a book that keeps you guessing by cleverly stringing you along, and the main conclusion I’d draw from the book again harks back to the Agatha Christie connections.  While it may sound nice to drop everything and move out to the countryside, please be careful if you do.  Judging by Fortier’s stories, you can never be quite sure who, or what, you might find there…

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