Friday, 9 March 2012

Crossing the Continent

Finished March 9
Crossing the Continent by Michel Tremblay, translated by Sheila Fischman
This is a gem of a novel. Nana (Rhéauna) is ten years old, the oldest of three sisters who live with their grandparents near the tiny French village of Maria, Saskatchewan. Unexpectedly, Nana's mother, who lives in Montreal, has sent for her to come and live with her, with her sisters following sometime in the future. Nana is sent on the train, but because of the great distance makes three stops along the way.
The first stop is in Regina, with her great-aunt Régina, a sour woman that Nana has always been a little afraid of. Nana discovers something wonderful about her great-aunt and sets off from Regina looked after by a young man working on the train, Jacques.
Nana has a long ride to Winnipeg, but is met by a large contingent at the stations, all organized by her great-aunt Bebette. Here the food is much better, but Nana is overwhelmed by the people, the food, and the circumstances.
Nana's next train journey is much longer, to Ottawa. She has a companion on the portion to Toronto, a friend of Bebette's who talks nonstop the whole way. She is in awe of the Great Lakes when she first sees them, and is able to find solace in the view from her window.
In Ottawa, she stays with her cousin Ti-Lou, a woman with a considerable reputation and elite clientele. Nana doesn't entirely understand what Ti-Lou does, but gets a sense of it, and is able to unburden her worries to Ti-Lou and get some interesting advice in return.
The last leg of her journey to Montreal is short, and Nana is looked after by another nice young man, Michael, who delivers her into the hands of her mother.
One theme obvious here is Nana's exposure to the three archetypes of women: the spinster, the wife and mother, and the prostitute. Nana gets a taste of each seeing a glimpse of each life and the appeal of each. The other is of course the journey (Canadian novel as road trip, as my niece is studying in her university course) which is both real and symbolic. The journey is also a coming of age, from a sheltered existence in a small isolated village, to a life of responsibility in a big city, with added knowledge of life along the way and increased exposure to bigger and bigger places as she goes. It also crosses a large expanse of our country.
The novel is also apparently backstory to another Tremblay novel Chronicles of the Plateau Mont-Royal, a book I shall have to seek out now and read. Thoroughly enjoyable and highly recommended.

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