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The Keeper’s Daughter is a new novel by French-Canadian first-time author Jean-François Caron, now translated into English by W. Donald Wilson for Talonbooks.
Structured as a series of short cinematic “takes,” this novel about recovering both personal and shared histories is told in a polyphony of voices. Châtelaine called it a “sheer joy to read,” and we think you’ll agree – which is why we’ve published an excerpt from the book on Meta-Talon. Dip into The Keeper’s Daughter: Rose and the Archipelago of Shifting Memories; the water’s warm!
Here is some context:
As a way to draw visitors to their isolated fishing village on Quebec’s North Shore, the tourist bureau commissions a documentary film recreating life as it was lived there in the 1940s and ’50s. To gather material for the project, the filmmaker is sent in search of Rose Brouillard, now an old woman but raised on an island just offshore by Onile, a local fisherman. Rose is finally tracked down in Montreal, where she lives a solitary life fogged by one of the inevitabilities of old age – failing memory.
We begin on a stormy night…
I’m the child Rose on a stormy night, a frightened Rose.
And then there’s the old dog, and Onile’s curds.
The storm is coming, disquieting. The rain batters the low cliff and the house clinging there. It’s pushing from every direction. It’s like the water you sling by the bucketful at the boardwalk to wash away the accumulated sand, dry leaves, and patches of salt from its boards.
It’s not a steady stream. It’s handfuls of shot hurled against the windows. That unrelenting roar is all there is, a blast filling the whole space inside the house with gusts. A sound that deadens soul and spirit, extending the rainstorm.
When there’s a lull, I open my eyes. In the lightning flashes I see Onile’s old dog, a fetus curled up in the middle of the room. Motionless but for the rise and fall as she breathes the humid air. The lightning doesn’t bother her. At most she bats an eyelid when the muffled rumble turns into a real explosion. She’s used to all that, Onile’s dog. She’s often gone shooting birds with him. A shot, a roll of thunder, it’s all the same to her. She’s asleep.
In the lightning flashes I see Onile bent over his jigsaw puzzle, always the same one. Three thousand fragments of a landscape bathed in the feeble, flickering light of the oil lamp. A cabin built of planks, grey among the autumn-tinged foliage such as you can make out on the coast in October. A stream in the foreground, to partially reflect the scene.
Already in those days I could become this cabin under Onile’s intent gaze. I was this old half-reflected shed in a world with a wholesome smell of undergrowth, humus, dead leaves, and an overland breeze. Even though I’m about to shatter into thousands of pieces, I’m content. Onile is willing to touch me.
In the lingering light when lightning gashes the horizon and turns the whole world blue, I can see: Onile’s face bent over his puzzle as if his moustache was a weight pulling his head forward; the fireplace framing a few almost extinct embers; the window, white for a moment before dimming again to a slate beaded with raindrops. All evening I’d rock myself like that, near the table, watching the world vanish and reappear. Nothing is real anymore, except what emerges by chance. Brief moments of existence.
Until Onile’s voice brings both of us back to the world: Daughter! Daughter, take some milk; go and make curd.
Then fear comes, that childish fear, an irrepressible fear that surges up as it always does. Because Mama is no longer here I’m the one who has to do the housework, so I have to make the curd. Onile is the papa of the story. I’m his daughter, I keep house for him. Our house.
Like always when he asks, I take a bowl of milk from the icebox and carry it to the workshop nearby. I set it down on the dusty workbench. I cover the bowl with a clean cloth so the cats can’t dip their paws in it. If there’s too much milk in the curding bowl a dark stain will spread over the centre of the cloth when it touches the creamy liquid.
I leave the bowl, the milk, and the cloth behind to be shaken by the storm, curdling the milk, leaving it thick and grainy, for Papa to mix with treacle or brown sugar in the morning.
From the workshop, the part of the island I can see makes a darker patch of night than the world on the horizon. Tomorrow, the gullies: the water off the headland, all the island’s water pouring down. The shore will never be the same again, for it changes every time. It will be ravined, unfamiliar, until the next storm. Until the
spring tides. Or the ice.
I shiver at each new rumble: quick, back to the house, where Papa is shifting his frame from one window to the next, stopping to gaze at points on the horizon only he can recognize. He’s abandoned his puzzle. Now he’s watching out for a distress signal, always a lightkeeper, though not a real one.
I return to the living room soaked through: it’s my lot as the daughter in a house with no mother. In front of the feeble fire I dry my blouse and shake out my skirt, which is clinging to my thighs. I hear the reassuring crackle coming from the hearth amid the din of thunder, the laboured breathing of the dog stretched out on the floor, and Papa’s voice mumbling prayers.
I’m nine, the dog is twelve; in a few months she’ll be dead. Onile puts on his oilskin and goes out. He’ll come home late in the night, soaked to the marrow with rain, bringing guests off the raging sea. Not for the first time.
They’ll have curd with sugar for breakfast.
This misty, swirling story is now available in print for $14.95. Find the extract above on pages 105–107.