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.