Life in the Court of Matane by Éric Dupont
Note: This review was first posted at Goodreads.
I hadn’t heard of Éric Dupont until his most recently translated novel, Songs for the Cold of Heart, was long- and then short-listed for the 2018 Giller Prize, which is my loss. I had planned to read that first, but then I discovered this novel, which precedes and foreshadows it. I suppose Life in the Court of Matane counts as autofiction, because it is very much the author telling us his story (neither the narrator nor his sister are ever named), but it doesn’t read like a lot of the autofiction I’ve been reading over the last couple of years. Oh, it’s definitely a coming-of-age story that is still very alive for the author/narrator, but the Éric of today recedes and is less important than the Éric of then. That’s not always a feeling I get from autofiction.
The book is divided into several large sections, each named for an animal (the original French title is Bestiaire), and each animal represents both an experience and a life lesson. The English title refers to the family and its life in various towns on the Gaspé Peninsula, with Matane being the one in which they live longest during this period. The Court of Matane is presided over by Éric’s father, who is referred to as Henry VIII, and his common-law wife, Anne Boleyn. Éric’s mother, who is of course Catherine of Aragon, is present in the early sections but then vanishes when Anne appears because Henry refuses to let his children utter her name, let alone visit her. Anne is strict but not completely unloving, while Henry is volatile and self-centered. The depictions of this working-class, ordinary family are presented through metaphors of court life, and it works brilliantly. It reminded me how much adults can be despots to children, and how much children are subjects in the adult world, completely at their mercy. When the adults are loving and generous the way Éric’s grandparents are, life is wonderful. When they’re not, such as when Henry VIII drinks excessively or Anne refuses to treat the children as the siblings they are to her new baby, life is harsh.
And of course, these relationships extend beyond the family. In the Catholic Church dominated world of rural Quebec, the nuns and priests exert considerable control over the children too. And relations among the children reflect adult hierarchies: Henry VIII is a policeman, which makes him suspicious in the eyes of the village folk, and that suspicion structures the children’s relationships with their peers. Éric himself is imaginative, fascinated by both the natural and human world around him, and of course that makes him an outsider and target of the schoolyard bullies. He dreams of escape.
I’m making this sound like a downer of a book, which it absolutely is not. The tone is frequently extremely funny, from dry asides to extended humorous set pieces. But it’s also unflinching in its depiction of sadness and injustice. What made it so effective and so heartbreaking at times was that Dupont can pivot on a dime and go from one to the other in a paragraph. You’re reading along, enjoying a light, humorous story, and then there’s a punch to the solar plexus. I occasionally had to put the novel down and take a break. Nothing is graphic, but that’s part of what makes it work so well, in my opinion.
I read a few reviews (there are not nearly enough given how good this book is) and some remarked on how this was very much a book about Quebec in the 1970s/1980s, and that it might be confusing to outsiders. I didn’t have any trouble getting immersed in the world, and my knowledge about French Canada is pathetic; I appreciated not having things spelled out for me. Some things are pretty universal after all, and if I missed the significance of certain symbols or events, it didn’t diminish my pleasure.
French-Canadian literature is much less well covered and discussed than Anglophone CanLit. I’m so glad I found Dupont’s work.