I know, I know. It’s been since August 12th. That’s pretty abysmal. It’s a combination of a tough time I had mid-August, a book that I had trouble getting through, and my procrastination when it came to writing the review. I knew it wasn’t going to be a positive one.
Elle, by Douglas Glover is heralded as many things in quotes from reviews on the back cover, to the description of the book. Glover’s writing is “witty, smart and extremely funny”. I definitely judged the front cover (as I am really trying not to do) until I flipped it over and read this as part of the description of the book on the back cover: “In a carnal whirlwind of myth and story, of death, lust and love, of beauty and hilarity, Glover brings the past violently, and unexpectedly into the present.” Did I also mention that it’s a GG winner? I put the cover out of my mind and dug in.
I’ll set the scene: A young, rich French woman (Marguerite) is aboard a ship headed for Canada. She is part of Jacques Cartier’s last, ill-fated attempt to colonize North America. She accidentally kills the captain’s dog so as punishment, is marooned on the desolate Isle of Demons with her old nurse and her lover, Richard – a star tennis player. (I know, right?)
This is a story of survival against the odds. As I’m sure you can imagine (slight spoiler here, but it’s within the first 30 pages or so), the other two die and she’s left to fend for herself. Up to this point in the story, the stage is set for an exciting adventure. What ends up happening to this early promise, however, is a series of encounters with indigenous people, animals, and nature all told through the eyes of Marguerite in a series of indistinguishable anecdotes. We are led to believe that she has an extremely high fever for a good period of her time on the island, and when she’s not ill and awake she is dreaming. Marguerite thinks she’s awake, but then sees that the woman caring for her has turned into a bear so she must be dreaming – perhaps not so. Then our heroine herself starts turning into a bear. It all got very confusing but I kept thinking that once her fever broke, or she got to know the people, the story would clear itself up and we would get some good… I don’t know, hunting scenes, or learning herbal medicine from the bear/woman scenes. Not the case. Once things clear up, the story takes a different turn and then it basically ends.
I have a pretty good sense of humour and I did not find anything particularly funny about this book, or the writing. There were a lot of scenes with gratuitous sex, and having just read Lullaby for Little Criminals, I shouldn’t be saying that about a piece of historical fiction on the colonization of Canada. Elle was also billed as a novel “based on a true story.” I understand that this is to mean that it was a tale told over and over again both in France and Canada and it’s part of the history of both of these places – that a “bear-woman” was marooned on the Isle of Demons. It’s quite a romantic story, but it just doesn’t come across that way in the novel. I consistently felt like I couldn’t relate to our heroine because I didn’t trust her to truthfully tell me her story. I wasn’t sure what was real and what wasn’t.
At one point, there’s actually quite a nice scene where she gives an indigenous man the mistaken image that she is born from the belly of a polar bear. (To give the guy some credit, it died, she was cold, she took off all her clothes, split open it’s belly and got in.) If any of you have read Galore by Michael Crummey, you’ll link that with the image of the main character, Judah, emerging mute and albino from the belly of a whale at the beginning of the book. When I started thinking more about Galore, I realized how well Crummey had told a story dealing with very similar themes to Elle, namely, magical realism. It made me realize, though, that in Galore, the magical realism never got in the way of the story. It was simply a part of it. You would occasionally wonder how certain things were possible, but you believed the narrator and enjoyed the folkloric aspect of the story.
I wanted to like this book. I wanted to like all the books on the Canada Reads List. I am sad to say that I didn’t like this one and I probably wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else. When I sat down to write this review and really thought about the bare-bones of the story, I see that it had potential to be all the things it claimed. I just don’t think it worked that way for me. I would love to hear from someone who enjoyed this book. I think it might help me to see how it won the GG – something I am very curious about.
Now, on to Inside, by Kenneth J. Harvey.