“The only rules I accept are the rules of grammar,” proclaims Marine, the captivating narrator of Jacques Poulin’s equally captivating short novel. Grammar aside, Marine is a person who welcomes the chaos of serendipity unconditionally. Visiting the gravesite of her mother and grandmother in a Quebec City cemetery, she is greeted by a man as he exits the nearby library. Is Marine creeped out by encountering an elderly stranger in a graveyard? Not on your life.
As it so happens, the man is Jack Waterman, a Quebec author. Since Marine had been considering translating Waterman’s novel of the Oregon Trail into English, this meeting between strangers is fortuitous, with a touch of Kismet. Waterman agrees to let Marine translate his work; he also rents her a chalet on the Ile d’Orleans, outside Quebec City.
And so begins Marine and Waterman’s complex dance as author and translator, set-in-his-ways curmudgeon and young woman adrift, two isolated souls aligning through a shared love of language. Her favorite T-shirt sports the Armand Gatti manifesto: “Mastering words is subversive and insolent.” When they shop at Value Village for clothes more suitable than their usual grubby garb to make an official appearance, Waterman quotes Ernest Hemingway’s “Wearing underwear is as formal as I ever hope to get.” Tone, style and the mot juste define their mutual creed.
Words are sacred, but neither of them ignores other kinds of messages from the universe. A cat shows up at Ile d’Orleans, abandoned, with an ominous note tucked under the collar that identifies it as Famine. Because certain occurrences, like certain sequences of words, are no accident and demand one’s full attention, Marine is compelled to resolve the mystery that note sets in motion. She enlists Waterman in her project, and they make a delightful team of amateur detectives. Sleuthing is yet another way they as artists reach out to strangers–to connect through their hearts. That they try to ease pain and suffering around them is the most important thing to them; if they should succeed, then all the better.
I won’t be the one to give away the ending. I will reveal that, alone in the chalet one evening, Marine looks up the meaning of the word refuge. She finds: “Small structure high in the mountains where climbers can spend the night.” With her signature directness, she reflects, “In my opinion that was the best definition of a novel.” Readers will find true refuge here in her touching story of friendship, hope and love.–John McFarland
Shelf Talker: A short novel that is brimming with satisfying tales of friendship, hope and love between two unlikely and enchanting characters.