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Troublesome aspects to unsettling Quebec novel

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/9/2015 (1784 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Any strong perfume is polarizing: some will love it, some would rather leave it.

So it is with Perrine Leblanc's latest novel The Lake: it's a highly individual tale that walks the line between lyrical and cloying, spare and underdeveloped, and readers will have to decide whether or not they are drawn to its strong flavour.

Leblanc, who won the Governor General's Literary Award for French fiction for 2011's Kolia, is a native of Montreal. The Lake retains its French inflection -- it was originally published in French under the title Malabourg (Gallimard, 2014), and now appears in a translation by Lazer Lederhendler.

Set on the north shore of the Baie des Chaleurs in the fictional village of Malabourg, The Lake is a story of sexual violence. Malabourg's men, "with their fishermen's faces and ageless palms, are driven to distraction by the girls of the new generation."

One by one, three young women disappear near the lake, their lives cut short by a predatory "beast." The village's old women shiver but look the other way; the village's young women choose to stay indoors -- except Mina, the brown-haired town's black-haired oddball. Often Mina crosses paths with Alexis, the brilliant young local perfumer whose passion for the murdered Geneviève lives on in the roses he leaves by the lake.

Leblanc is more interested in rehabilitation than suspense. The identity of the murderer is revealed early in the story, and the rest of the novel lingers on Mina and Alexis as they pick up the pieces.

Scent aids them, and Leblanc is at her best in passages where Alexis searches catalogues of scents for the exact combinations that will evoke memory and identity: "He plays with the proportions, avoids theoretical balance, looks for the absolute equation, the short history that he composes by searching through his memory of fragrances." The results are intended to tell Malabourg's painful story.

In choosing to truncate the murder mystery so early in the novel, however, Leblanc sacrifices momentum; the novel pushes toward a moment of revelation, then lapses into relative stasis. Post-revelation, the story wanders through tiny vignettes and impressions that often, frustratingly, conceal more than they reveal of primary characters' motivations.

The Lake also heavily relies on sexual clichés: older men are frustrated and predatory; as a result, "Every mother in Malabourg has had a male ear grafted onto her body, and the eyes in the back of her head are connected to the father." Young women are taught to believe that "in Malabourg, it's always the girls' fault."

But The Lake can't be read purely as social critique, because Leblanc herself habitually describes her characters using sexual markers. Readers are repeatedly reminded Mina, for example, "has no breasts; her lungs swallowed them whole." Mina is later slimmed down by grief and poor dietary habits, but, we're told, "Her breasts had not changed." Every female character in The Lake is at least partly characterized by her conventional sexual desirability. This is a dangerous flaw in any novel, but particularly one that deals with misogynistic cultural norms that find their final -- and most horrible -- expression in murder.

However, The Lake is redeemed by occasional psychologically astute moments. Alexis tests every scent on himself. "The scent has evolved on his wrist," writes Leblanc. "It is a truffle laid at the heart of a Turkish rose. An hour later, the truffle has turned into damp, sweet skin, and later into the underbrush of fairy tales."

With time, Leblanc seems to argue, every experience -- even the saddest -- becomes easier to bear.

 

Julienne Isaacs is a Winnipeg writer.

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History

Updated on Saturday, September 26, 2015 at 8:23 AM CDT: Formatting.

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