Review by Claire Grogan
Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette never knew her grandmother on her mother’s side. Curious to understand why this grandmother, Suzanne, a sometime painter and poet associated with Les Automatistes, a movement of dissident artists that included Paul-Émile Borduas, abandoned her husband and young family, Barbeau-Lavalette hired a private detective to piece together Suzanne’s life.
The result is a fictionalized life story entitled Suzanne that is crafted around a range of verifiable facts: places, people, publications, poems and paintings.
The novel opens using the imaginative viewpoint of the granddaughter/author. In eight brief vignettes, presented as discrete paragraphs on clean pages, we read about the early encounters between Grandmother and Granddaughter. The narrator, imagining the first encounter, has just been born—the grandmother Suzanne briefly enters the hospital room at St Justine’s, looks at her daughter and at the newborn baby before summarily departing
The next vignette describes how our narrator (now 10), recalls looking out of the apartment window “my breath melting the lacy frost on the pane” and spotting an elderly woman who “crosses the street in long strides” and “slides a small book into the mailbox before slipping off”. This elusive figure, who has so clearly abandoned and hurt her daughter (the narrator’s beloved mother) is a figure of fascination to the granddaughter.
We then read about their surprise visit to the mother/grandmother who lives in Ottawa… everything seems cordial enough—albeit perfunctory, but once they have left the grandmother telephones to warn her daughter never to surprise her in such a way again. The heartbreak is palpable and characterizes the entire work in which the daughter’s love for her own mother is projected from that mother to the grandmother but it is hardly ever reciprocated.
The rest of the novel, divided up chronologically, takes us through Suzanne’s life in an attempt to persuade the reader to discover, if not sympathize, with the protagonist’s life choices. Suzanne is a belligerent, audacious young girl, who unlike her sister Claire, chafes at all the constraints placed up or against her. A feisty child who is contrary by nature and then by choice, she makes the reader laugh at her unconventional ways –
When at confession Suzanne admits
“I committed obscene acts, Father.”
But to his question “On yourself or on someone else?”
“On you Father”
You smile. You like the silence that follows. (50)
There follows a catalogue of thinly veiled attempts to get a response, to shock, to startle, to generally just be noticed amongst an ever expanding number of siblings and a family in economic decline. When the father, Achilles, loses his job as a teacher, we learn about the Programme de restauration social (1933), under which he is put to work collecting and burning dandelions. In this way Barbeau-Lavalette informs us about the social and economic programs in Quebec under Duplessis and then his successors.
Suzanne momentarily escapes from this grinding poverty and grimness when she reads about “The Meteor from Montreal. The Canadian Comet”, Quebec sprinter Hilda Strike. From this discovery we note light allusions to this remarkable young woman whom Suzanne imagines literally running away from her life. Hilda Strike becomes the motif for Suzanne’s own life choices- firstly in her move away from her family to participate in a speaking competition in Montreal, and then in her entry into the alternative and unconventional artistic world of the Automatistes. Through the ensuing pages we learn how Suzanne absorbs these free-flowing ideas, embraces her own sexuality and artistic desires. An early marriage to a painter, Marcus, one child and then another, however, slowly shatter the illusion of freedom and see Suzanne abandon her children to travel on alone.
Though she travels to Europe and England, however, she doesn’t really move or develop as an individual. She keeps circling back through the central men in her life, and it is an abortion that finally returns her to Canada.
One presumes Barbeau-Lavalette hopes to atone for Suzanne’s abandoning of her own children, but there follows a sordid retelling of trysts, betrayals, agonized phone calls to her abandoned daughter (now 4, now 6) noticeable for their silence. Barbeau-Lavalette hopes to fill those silences but has the honesty not to contradict her own mother’s recollection of the grandmother’s persistent silence; this falls well short of exonerating or even (for this particular reader) offering any real motivation or ambition in Suzanne. Responsibilities are too much, she has too little interest, and she moves through people and situations as though through water with little concern for anyone’s wellbeing or feelings. Abandoning her children to a foster home, then her husband to New York, she casually links up with a variety of men who allow her to escape from the realities of life. The novel eventually brings her back to Canada and full circle to the opening vignettes.
While there are some beautiful passages, some poignant observations, the novel, by so cursorily brushing over and through so many places and people, leaves the reader with a sense of Suzanne’s vacuousness rather than of a woman struggling against social conventions of mid 20th century Quebec. She comes across as a lost, drifting individual who laments her choices but is condemned to keep repeating them. There is limited development of her character or thoughts. In fact, the young author granddaughter is the one projecting depth and sensitivity onto a fairly cruel and selfish grandmother –she wants it to be otherwise and if only on the pages of a novel has written it to convince us that it is so.