“I guess we’ll never really understand where we come from.” So says one of the characters in Catherine Leroux’s The Party Wall, a quote that basically sums up the entire premise of this Giller Prize shortlisted book.
In this complex, multi-layered story — or set of stories bound together by common themes and characters who are connected with one another — there is a strong focus on kinship, biological parentage and the ties that bind siblings together.
Reviewing the book in any great detail, however, isn’t an easy task, because, as my fellow Shadow Giller jury member Naomi has explained, the less you know about it, the more rewarding it is to read. I concur entirely.
Structurally, the book is divided into four sets of characters — sisters Monette and Angie; husband and wife Ariel and Marie; siblings Simon and Carmen; and mother and son Madeleine and Édouard — whose stories are told in interleaving chapters.
Each narrative thread hinges on a revelation that leaves the characters reeling. These revelations all revolve around secrets associated with family history.
While each set of stories (two chapters per pair, though Monette and Angie get seven much shorter chapters) is strong enough to be read as a standalone, the fun is working out the connections between characters in different stories. But this task isn’t entirely straightforward, because the stories are set in different time periods. When the pennies begin to drop, however, it’s quite a mind f**k.
Along with the aforementioned focus on kinship, biological parentage and siblings, there are other common themes relating to pairs — twins, polar opposites, “spitting images”, different halves, duality — running throughout. For example:
The world is an unjust place where the good go bad from never being rewarded, where the truly wicked are very rarely punished and where most folk zigzag between the two extremes, neither saints nor demons, tacking between heartache and joy, their fingers crossed, knocking on wood. Every person split in two, each with a fault around which good and evil spin.
We were on the track that splits the Great Salt Lake exactly in two. Because of the railroad ballast, the lake is divided in half, and the composition of the water isn’t the same in both halves. The northern side is full of wine-red algae, but on the southern side it’s green. The clouds were perfectly mirrored on the surface and took on the colours of the lake. The train rolled along slowly. The air was warm and soft. There was no sound; it was as if the universe had come to a standstill. Right then, I had the feeling that I would never again be hungry or cold or in pain or afraid.
As those extracts may demonstrate, Leroux’s prose style, ably translated from the French by Lazer Lederhendler, is sublime, often filled with vivid imagery, startling similes and universal truths. I found myself highlighting a quote on almost every single page, because there was so much here that surprised me or struck a chord.
I loved all the characters, too. Each story is peopled by deeply flawed humans, all of whom are good-hearted but struggling to come to terms with past hurts or slights. I so enjoyed accompanying them on their individual voyages of self discovery that I felt slightly bereft when I reached the final page. Interestingly, the author explains that most were based on real characters, or inspired by them, but that her characters “should not be regarded as copies of actual persons”.
All in all, The Party Wall is an often startling book about identity and self-discovery, and the things that connect or separate us. It’s an intelligent, innovative and exhilarating read.
This review has been cross-posted on Reading Matters.