John Lavery's first novel, Sandra Beck, is presented as two stories: the 70-page novella Cunnkitay, and the much longer Crutches, which could easily be read as a novel on its own. The first is narrated by Josée, Sandra Beck's daughter, and the second by P-F Bastarache, her husband. Although Sandra is always at the centre of their attention, she's also always off-stage.
The first part of the novel follows Josée from her conception until, almost an adult, she realizes that "my happiness," as she calls her mother, is a completely autonomous human being with her own life, and not in fact the Sandra Beck she had always imagined. This section is the most challenging for the reader. Lavery is adept at linguistic gymnastics and uses them to excellent effect, portraying the private, inner language of a developing child with only half an eye on reality. There's joy and humour here, but also an ominous and unseemly undercurrent in Josée's devotion to Uncle Danilo.
And at the end of her story, when she's recovering in a hospital emergency room, we don't quite know what from. But we do see her emphatic realization that she must strike out on her own, away from her family, to make her own life.
The second section is from the viewpoint of Paul-François Bastarache, known as P-F, a Montreal cop and TV personality, as he drives home from Sandra Beck's funeral. It's a back-and-forth, meandering journey over the course of his life with Sandra, which has stretched from their adolescence through both their careers. Here the baroque playfulness is much more restrained. In fact, although it weaves back and forth in time and place, and the established point of view breaks late in the story, it reads remarkably smoothly. And it creates a warm and intimate portrait of a man taking stock of his life in the wake of its upheaval.
The cover incorporates a map of Montreal, but this setting is overshadowed by Quebec's Eastern Townships, Lennoxville, Sherbrooke - almost anywhere else, in fact. Which of course parallels the title character's absence nicely. Both are bits of misdirection which, by calling our attention to what is missing, underscore its importance and force us to see very clearly through the information we do have as if through a telescope. Or, in this case of playfully inventive language, a kaleidoscope.
Sandra's story eventually comes to us, even if in pieces, and these pieces do assemble in our minds without much effort, at the same time as they force us to revise earlier impressions. One nice bit is in the supporting character Uncle Danilo, whom we see in the opening story as a creepy predator. When we get to P-F's narrative of this same time in their lives, the reader understands something important that the narrator does not.
The interface between English and French in Quebec plays a part not just in the character's lives, but also in the language of the novel itself. For Lavery, this acknowledged gulf is not only bridgeable, it's positively joyful. The stress of bilingualism informs his writing not as a threat but as a playground of ideas and allusions. Sandra refuses to speak to Josée in English, which the girl resents, prompting an ambiguous relationship with her "Father tongue."
Lavery seems equally focused on character and language, a relief to those of us who prefer their fiction with some story. The resultant flow and rhythm of puns, allusions, refrains, jests and the unexpected is something of a trademark with Lavery, whose two previous short-story collections ( Very Good Butter and You, Kwaznievski, You Piss Me Off) were widely praised. Sandra Beck is a novel that emerges from the particular language and geography of a specific place, and the enormous talent and skill of a gifted author. It is a pleasure and a marvel.
Michel Basilières is the author of Black Bird . He teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto.