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Reviewed by Sarah-Joy Geddes
“Piercing” is the second in Larry Tremblay‘s trio of short stories and lends the book its title. I could not have encountered the story at a better time: I am nurturing a fresh tattoo and feel receptive to the story of Marie-Hélène’s awakening understanding of the gift of pain.
Pain serves a positive purpose in our lives as well as negative, and Larry Tremblay explores the human relationship with structured pain and its results gracefully. Fever and dis-ease stalk the winter streets of Montreal, and the streetkids Marie-Hélène, Serge, and Tony seem out of touch with themselves, discordant. Gradually, through the influence of the piercer Kevin, they are coaxed into a better understanding of their own uniqueness.
The characters embrace their inner vulnerability one by one, manifested in gold studs and rings appearing in their flesh. Serge has a fever dream wherein he imagines the
redemptive power of pain:
Serge was suffering but remained a true angel whore. Motionless in his bed, he dreamed that a knife was slicing him in two, that a substance with the shininess and consistency of gelatine was pouring out of its envelope, that this substance was feeding everyone who was hungry in the world. A substance that quivered like the first thrill of love when it is unexpected.
Pain is a classic redirection: rather than deal with the psychological pain one faces the physical pain demanding attention. There are many ways to dignify one’s emotional pain, sublimate it. These kids experience bloodied hands and mouths, but an accident does not carry the same weight of a piercing. The sterility and intention of a body modification can become therapeutic, as it does for these young characters.
The structure of the story echoes the geography, effectively sucking you in and gently bringing you back out again. We begin in Chicoutimi just after the event of Marie-Hélène’s Father’s death, travel with her to the stimulating streets of Montreal, then delve deeper and deeper into the strange modified church that is Kevin’s stronghold. We move even further into the most esoteric rooms of the church, peopled by stranger and stranger characters.
Slowly, carefully, we move back out farther and farther until we are standing with Marie-Hélène in the cemetery in Chicoutimi. The shock of a serious injury precipitates her inward blossoming. Having completed her interior journey, the young woman heads back to Kevin to complete her initiation. Nothing is wasted. The story closes neatly, like a drawstring. This is a swoon-worthy structure!
Larry Tremblay does not stress the connection between religious self-flagellation and body modification, but the message is there, very elegant. A modified church dominating the landscape seems organic to the lush urban winter peopled with dirty streetkids. The pivotal character, Kevin, is an intersection between the profane and the sacred, something akin to a burning bush to his small group of tough street kids. The kids themselves are rich, multi-faceted characters. They take pride in their graduation from pain to pain, wisdom to wisdom. They attempt to live lives of integrity. Marie-Hélène does not seek her own initiation into Kevin’s pierced family until after she has faced her grief and begun to move forward. They are inner-city saints in their enclave, practicing a nobler life.
“Piercing” was both a charmful and sobering read. I recalled the stories behind my own piercings and tattoos, more aware of their shadows than ever. Like I am, Marie-Hélène is learning that life is a series of scars with great stories behind them.