The Breakwater House, by Pascale Quiviger

ARC courtesy House of Anansi -- click cover for info

Translated by Lazer Lederhendler

Just over a year ago in the early days of this blog, I reviewed Colm Toibin’s Mothers and Sons, a very good collection of short stories by an exceptional writer.

The Breakwater House might well be titled “Mothers and Daughters” — while it is a novel, the story comes in sections that are very much like a collection of related short stories and the dominant theme throughout is the relationship between mothers and their daughters. Or, perhaps more accurately, daughters and their mothers.

Author Pascale Quiviger is another example of a recent phenomenon — a Canadian author, born in Montreal, who now divides her time between London and Italy (think Kate Pullinger of The Mistress of Nothing fame). She publishes originally in French (think Nancy Huston on that count) but her English translations do very well here in Canada. Her first novel, The Perfect Circle, won a Governor-General’s award and was shortlisted for the Giller Prize.

The Breakwater House is a complex and often confusing novel, as the author makes clear from the start. The narrator purchases the house of the title on the Normandy coast and wastes little time letting the reader know that all will not be what it seems in this book:

My house is as close to the sea as a house can get before becoming a boat. As close to the sea as a boat when it fails as a boat — by which I mean, when it capsizes.

At times I command the landscape from my house. At times I see nothing at all. In my inner life, this inside of the outside, I exist only as something intangible.

I will write.

When you find yourself prisoner of such a vast horizon, when the shore slips away and the crisscrossing paths on the beach lead to just one house, always the same, with its single huge window, its castaway eye, the only thing left is to unravel, one way or another, the knot that’s choking you. You can’t pretend any more.

The opening section, while filled with powerful description, serves mainly to introduce a number of questions and conundrums about how the narrator came to be there, what history she might have brought with her and why everything is obviously not what it at first seems to be.

Succeeding sections (titled “notebooks”) have a more conventional narrative, yet it is always accompanied by a combination of uncertainty and fantasy that relate to those questions — Quiviger does not answer them, but rather disects them. Lucie is the daughter of a single mother, growing up in a poor side of Paris; her best friend, Claire, the daughter of a conventional middle-class couple, lives in comfort on the other side of a park where the two meet as very young children, but go on to become friends for life. Along the way, they swap clothes, parents and experiences, always learning from each other.

The bulk of the book concerns that friendship (and how these two girls relate both to their own mothers and their past). Lucie’s mother will never address that directly but does tell “stories” about it (fans of A.S. Byatt’s internal fairy tales will find this familiar). The stories are tantalizing and offer some, but not enough, information for Lucie to understand her history:

We all dream the dream of a life where the golden keys turn readily. So much effort goes into our days, so many optical illusions, so much dishwater, so much vague expectation. We all suffer from the body’s imprint, the tightness of its skin, the limits of its strength, its slow wearing out. Because of what we see, know, dream, we look for an easier path. One already cleared. A shortcut instantly within reach. A dogma, a gentle and more or less costly certitude. We set out blind and deaf, but never without the hazy intuition that at the far end of our journey we’ll find both the relief of oblivion and a world with no poem.

I offer those quotes as an example that Quiviger is a writer of considerable talent (very ably translated) who frequently brings the reader to a stop with her observations — and with the inconsistencies of her story. The novel goes down a number of side paths, all worth while, which I won’t attempt to detail here. Both Lucie and Claire become very real characters, but they are always incomplete. There is something not so much missing as yet to be discovered and their attempts to find the absent parts rarely meet with success. Yet they continue to grow and mature and the missing parts become even more relevant to their present, past and future: “Mothers’ daughters become daughters’ mothers, and you will lose only what you can’t let go of.”

Obviously, I am neither a mother nor daughter, so for this reader much of the book was like looking into a clouded mirror, another metaphor that Quiviger frequently employs. I was impressed enough with both the writing and the structure to keep on reading, but I never lost the feeling that I was getting less than half the book. I don’t think that was the author’s fault; rather, this book is addressing issues and ideas that are simply outside both my experience and even imagination. My problem, not Quiviger’s.

If you are either a mother or daughter, I suspect this book would have much more to say to you than it did for me. Selfishly, I would like to see Quiviger apply her considerable talent to a narrative with which I could more readily engage. I can’t help but think that there is a lot of this book that simply passed me by — I certainly welcome comments from readers (and I am sure they exist) with whom it made stronger contact. Toibin’s short stories did strike a responsive chord with me (I am a son, after all) and I can’t help but think this novel would do the same for daughters, or mothers.

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7 Responses to “The Breakwater House, by Pascale Quiviger”

  1. Kirsty (Other Stories) Says:

    I have to admit that this isn’t an author I’ve heard of before, but I think I’d like to read this book. For one, having done my Masters dissertation on motherhood in literature, with a chapter focussing on mother/daughter relationships, it’s a dynamic I’m always happy to read more of. Also, I loved ‘Mothers and Sons’ by Toibin. I went to see him read from and talk about the book in London when it was first published, and he totally (and literally) sold it to me. I must read more by him too.

  2. whisperinggums Says:

    Being a daughter, and the mother of a daughter, this sounds like it might be one for me to check out in the future. It’s a great review, Kevin. Thanks.

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kirsty: Given that thesis topic, I would recommend this to you. Without giving anything away, part of what is interesting about the book is the very different nature of Lucie and Claire’s mothers — which of course causes each daughter to be attracted to the other mother. Part of what reminded me of Toibin is that the “absences” that the girls feel in understanding themselves and their history can also be found in his short stories (which I also very much liked).
    whispergums: The generational aspect of the characters is important and also reflected in a number of the side stories which I did not go into. I’m glad that my review did not end up putting you off the book — it is hard to write about a book that you know has more to it than you are getting.

  4. annenicolepilkey Says:

    I read this book a few weeks ago, and it still stays with me. Embarrassingly enough, I was reading it in a coffee shop, and started to cry when I realized the importance of the yellow boot. I can put your mind at ease Kevin, that a female perspective adds many other layers to the book that unfortunately, a male reader may not identify with as strongly. Like you, I don’t see this as a drawback of the book, but a bonus!

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    AnneNicole: Thanks for the comment. I suspect that reading two books with male central characters who are my age (Martin Amis The Pregnant Widow and Ian McEwan’s Solar — review will be up soon) I was more conscious that parts of this book were flying right by me but would definitely land with others. And I do see that as a good thing, not a bad thing. It has only been a few days since I finished it, but already it is interesting to contemplate what parts come bubbling back to the surface.

  6. Kathleen Winter Says:

    Kevin,
    I admire the way you wrote this review. I love it when a reviewer manages to make a book seem inviting, even seductive, despite his or her own difficulties with it. I admire the sensitivity and observation you have used – this book comes across as fascinating and your own time spent with it becomes interesting and transparent to your reader. It’s much more interesting to read a review like this than one in which the reviewer is insulting or negatively opinionated. This way, the reader is given tantalizing information and left to discover the book for herself or himself. Thank you.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Welcome Kathleen and thank you for your kind words. Part of what I liked about this novel was that I was constantly being reminded that others would be finding it struck closer to home that it did with me. That in itself is a tribute to the author and the book.

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