CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 37. . . .May 28, 2010.
Help, Me, Jacques Cousteau.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press, 2010.
197 pp., pbk., $18.95.
Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.
Review by Emily Sobool.
He is standing in the backyard of our house, in the dark, with his hands in his pockets. He's just standing there, thinking. And suddenly I see my father for what he truly is: kind, confused, and moving day by day into a future he can no longer elude.
Help Me, Jacques Cousteau, Gil Adamson's first collection of short fiction, was originally published by Porcupine's Quill in 1995. Having become out-of-print thanks to its limited initial run, it is now available again courtesy of a reissue by House of Anansi Press, a move prompted by the critical and commercial success of Adamsonís 2007 novel, The Outlander.
In Help Me, Jacques Cousteau, the reader is submerged in Hazel's life in a series of 13 linked short stories. We are with her as she moves from childhood into early adulthood, her age often unknown as the stories progress. Yet this book is not a coming of age story. Hazel's voice remains the same throughout, and Adamson chooses to focus her vivid prose mostly on accounts of the unusual antics of Hazel's family. Each story centers on Hazel observing her family members during those moments that pass between the events that are typically the concern of the plot in more conventional narratives. The division of Help Me, Jacques Cousteau into separate but linked stories places it in a somewhat uneasy space between a short story collection and a novel, and the expectations that come with each. The experience of reading it can be frustrating, because, although deliberate, the form the book takes feels at times like an incomplete novel that is lacking forward momentum. Despite these issues, the quality of Adamson's writing is outstanding, and her facility with words is immensely satisfying to read. Help Me, Jacques Cousteau is most rewarding when approached as a literary family portrait, with each story slowly savoured for the well-crafted prose and clarity of images within, from Hazel's description of her newborn baby brother's comical feet with toes like corn niblets to the glorious final scene of the book involving the family's Christmas plum pudding.
A quirky sense of humour is present alongside a healthy dose of poignancy as Hazel observes her parentsí relationship fall apart over time. Her response to the separation of her parents is a pervasive numbness that seems to infect her characterization: Hazel's descriptions are mostly focused externally, and she remains emotionally detached throughout much of the book. While the images that Adamson evokes in Help Me, Jacques Cousteau are vividly sketched and highly memorable, Hazel's disconnection from the characters and events surrounding her has the result of holding the reader at arm's length. The book's lack of engagement, when considered in conjunction with the chosen structure's lack of a compelling plot, results in a work that some readers may find challenging or unrewarding. Help Me, Jacques Cousteau would primarily appeal to readers with an appreciation for poetry and finely sculpted prose, and those with an interest in eccentric families and dysfunctional relationships.
Recommended with reservations.
Emily Sobool is a librarian in Vancouver, BC.
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