Most of my attention is on the International Booker Prize at the moment, but while I was waiting for the longlist announcement, I did manage to fit in one last reading mini-project, resulting in a couple of reviews that will appear on the blog this week. We’re heading off to Quebec again, and my next post will focus on a classic novel from the province, introducing us to a rather memorable, if vexing, character. Today, though, we’re looking at more contemporary fare, and while the story’s roots are in Canada, the bulk of the action takes place in a far sunnier climate, even if the overriding sensation is one of coldness…
Annie Perreault’s The Woman in Valencia (translated by Ann Marie Boulanger, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is the first of this year’s offerings from QC Fiction, a small press specialising in works from French-speaking Canada. The novel revolves around Claire Halde, a woman in her thirties whose life is changed forever by a chance encounter at the outside pool of her hotel in the Spanish city of Valencia:
You must’ve spent a good hour lounging like that, killing time, when you noticed something moving out of the corner of your eye, to your left. A woman was walking toward you. You turned to look over your shoulder and at that precise second, Valencia became – and would forever remain – a city of ice. The sky turned to grey, to concrete.
p.11 (QC Fiction, 2021)
After a brief conversation, the woman leaps from the edge of the swimming pool balcony, plummeting onto the street below, leaving Claire with her handbag and a scar that will change her life forever.
Six years later, still suffering from the trauma, Claire decides to return to Valencia, looking for some sort of closure, or at least a way to come to terms with what happened on that day, but she discovers that the way back to her previous life is blocked, possibly permanently. Meanwhile, her daughter, Laure, finds her own way of coping with her mother’s issues, and in a strand set years later, she too heads off to Valencia, hoping to find her own peace by fulfilling her mother’s dream.
The story is built upon a slightly grim premise, but The Woman in Valencia is a book I really enjoyed. It’s a slow-burning, intelligent look at trauma, and an examination of the effects of an incident on an eyewitness, showing how her life changes as a result. Of course, it’s not just about Claire, though. As we are to learn, Laure is collateral damage of the emotional bomb that went off, and she, too, is still looking for answers after all these years.
Perreault’s novel is a story in two parts. The first third of the book, set in 2009, provides Claire’s account of the holiday in Spain, with most attention paid to the day she witnesses the woman’s deliberate fall, and the incident’s aftermath. We follow her as she goes down to the street to see exactly what happened, then returns to her family and struggles to keep it all from her young children. She’s still caught up in the moment here, and the writer focuses on the overwhelming, physical reaction to the tragedy just as much as her mental anguish.
In the second part, we move on to 2015 to find Claire returning to Valencia, this time alone. She’s looking for answers, despite not being sure what she wants to know, and she takes along the woman’s bag when she trawls the city in a vain search for her body. She revisits the sights she went to last time, suffering dangerous vertigo at the top of towers, and most readers will be convinced that she’s constantly on the verge of a breakdown, or something far worse.
Yet the story isn’t quite as straight-forward as it may sound, and this second part is actually a two-strand affair. The accounts of Claire’s return to Valencia are interspersed with those of her daughter, Laure, during her visit to the city ten years on. It’s now 2025, and on her mother’s fiftieth birthday she’s taking part in the Valencia marathon to honour Claire’s wish that they run a marathon together on that day. You’ll notice a slight flaw in that plan, though – Claire’s not there.
A major theme of The Woman in Valencia, then, can be summed up by the simple question What happened to Claire? In a literal sense, this query echoes throughout the second part of the book – we know she’s not around in 2025, but we don’t know why. In her strand, there are frequent hints of suicide, self-harm and stranger danger scattered throughout her second visit to Valencia, but many of these turn out to be red herrings. The answer won’t be revealed until the end of the story, if at all.
However, we’re far more concerned with what happened to Claire in a less literal sense, and Perreault is far more interested in showing us the effect witnessing the suicide had on the poor woman. Claire’s husband, who doesn’t appear much in the story, fails to understand her anguish, believing she’ll get over it all eventually. In the few scenes set back in Montreal, we see them drift apart as her desire to get away from it all grows ever stronger.
And yet, rather than showing the tragedy as the cause for Claire’s decision to seek some breathing space, the writer hints that it was merely a catalyst, carefully showing us that Claire’s far from happy with her marriage, bored with domestic affairs and no longer enamoured with her husband:
That numbness that pervades your whole body and clouds your vision, when your skin feels like it’s weighed down by a layer of clay, when staring into the soft glow of a lightbulb sends you into a trance, and you’re suddenly convinced of the need to take stock of your entire life, right there, in the middle of the night. (p.60)
As the novel progresses, we learn more about her early years, her wanderlust, the thrills of travels far and wide and the risks she used to take. This turning point in her life drives her to revisit these days and find some time for herself, but we’re left wondering what she’ll do once she’s scratched that itch.
The Woman in Valencia is a wonderful story containing far more questions than answers, and Boulanger has done a great job with Perreault’s novel in what is her first full work of literary translation. It’s a tale of doing what has to be done, even if the chances of it bringing peace are slim, as Laure proclaims:
…what I’d like, now that I’ve caught my breath, is to go in search of what was broken and lost here. I know full well that this race, this trivial effort of running 42.2 km in under four hours, won’t save anything, won’t bring my mother back, won’t explain the inexplicable or console the inconsolable, yet I keep running, I run because, like my mother, I have a deep thirst, I don’t want to be held back, I’ve come here looking for the light that my mother never found, or that she lost… (p.180)
Whether it’s obtained by means of sightseeing, casual sex or pounding the streets of a foreign city, what the protagonists of The Woman in Valencia are looking for is catharsis and peace of mind. Whether they find it, well – that’s another matter entirely…