CM . . .
. Volume XVIII Number 41. . . .June 22, 2012
Fourteen year old Natalie, a resident of Point Douglas in Winnipeg, MB, is thrilled to have her friend, 16 year old Addy, visiting from Montreal for the Christmas holidays. The girls anxiously await the arrival of Natalie’s new baby sister while enduring a typical vicious Winnipeg winter. Meanwhile, Rose Lepine, a 16 year old classmate of Natalie’s older brother Jack, commits suicide, going to sleep in a snow bank to end her suffering caused by her older sister Bethany’s suicide. In alternating chapters, the reader follows the stories of Rose and Natalie.
Upon her death, Rose lands immediately in a desolated, deteriorating hell for those who commit suicide, a horror filled with rot, blood and everlasting pain, and a place where she searches determinedly for her sister Bethany. Advised to keep turning left into the decaying centre of Suicide City, Rose meets several terrifying spirits, makes friends with Emmanuel, a young boy, and eventually finds the Queen, a cannibal who releases souls by consuming what’s left of her subjects’ bodies. Rose comforts her sister who is angry with her for keeping her from being released. Although Rose briefly contemplates murdering the Queen, she ends up looking on as the Queen starts the dancing.
Natalie’s loving, caring, impoverished family stands in stark contrast to both Addy’s life with her scattered mother Casey, and the despair felt by the Lepine family who are as much at a loss to figure out why their daughters committed suicide as anyone. Natalie is a lively, strong teen, eager for friendship with her brother’s pals and accepting of the discipline provided by her pregnant mother Nora and Nora’s partner, Davey. This section of the book is told in the first person by Natalie, but the lively dialogue helps to reveal the personalities of all the characters. The birth of tiny Madeline is moment of pure joy for all. The touching love between Nora and Davey, who live the life of the working poor, is the foundation of Natalie’s strength. Fournier vividly portrays life in one of Winnipeg’s poorest neighbourhoods.
Natalie’s friend Addy is genuinely funny and spontaneous, adored by all, her outspoken comments tolerated by Natalie’s loving family. That Addy, deserted by her mother, returns to an empty Montreal apartment is shockingly painful even though the reader knows that she will survive.
Much more problematic is how the story of Rose’s search through hell’s Suicide City for her own sister Bethany connects to Natalie’s story. Here in hell, nothing is predictable: the landscape morphs and changes constantly; paths are open and then choked shut; there is perpetual pain and suffering, shrieking, horrifying disfigurement and cannibalism. In these sections, the writing flirts with gratuitous violence and horror for its own sake. When Rose does find Bethany, her sister is angry with her for committing suicide and ultimately rejects her love and support. There is no happy ending here. And the vague, uneasy narrative loose end leaves the reader with too many questions. Not explained, for example, is why the capricious disgusting Queen resembles Addy, with the same green eyes and long thick auburn hair. Rose’s story is told in the third person, which lends some detachment to the horror. Although the anti suicide message echoes painfully through this section, it is a stretch to relate Rose’s story in the afterlife to that of Natalie.
Some of the intended readership will be charmed by Natalie and her family while others will be drawn to the gruesome horror of Rose’s existence in the afterlife.
Joan Marshall is a Winnipeg, MB, bookseller.
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