canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


by Douglas Glover
Goose Lane Editions, 2003

Reviewed by Lori Hahnel

Read TDR's interview with Douglas Glover

Shit, death, lust, putrefaction, sin, blood, revenge, pox, overflowing charnel houses, deformed babies, dreams, shape-shifting, vision quests and even some banal reality: they’re all here in glorious Technicolor in Douglas Glover’s new novel, Elle. The best part? It’s based on a true story, or a true legend, at least. According to the legend, in 1542 the Sieur de Roberval exiled his niece Marguerite de la Roche for her lusty behaviour on board his ship, along with her nurse and her lover. The trio found themselves on what was then called the Ile des Demons, on the Labrador coast. Amazingly, she survived three summers and two winters, and the deaths of her nurse, her lover and her baby, before she was rescued and returned to France to tell her story.

Glover’s book begins here, but ends up as something more than mere historical fiction. As he tells us in the introductory note, "I have tried to mangle and distort the facts as best I can". The result: Elle is a gripping and vivid romp through Marguerite’s quite incredible adventures, seen through the prism of the author’s wild imagination.

Marguerite is an intelligent, well-read and passionate young noblewoman. She is also very funny. "I have made many mistakes," she says. "I blame printed books for this, a recent invention which has led us to solitary pleasures: reason, private opinions, moral relativism, Lutheranism and masturbation." She has no compunctions about sharing all the details of what she sees, smells and tastes. This is not a book for the faint-hearted or the squeamish. You should probably forget about giving it to the mother-in-law for Christmas.

Elle explores the contrast between the Old World and the New, between Marguerite’s rather insincere Catholicism and the nature-based beliefs of the early Canadians. When Glover holds them beside each other, each of these systems of religious belief looks as unlikely as the other. Still, while this aspect of the novel is interesting, the action parts kept me reading.

Elle has much to say about the nature of religious experience and morality, about the concepts of ‘exile’ and ‘courage’, for those of us who want some meat in our reading. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun to read, if, like me, you tend to flip to the naughty bits first. And it’s based in Canadian history – what could be better?

Lori Hahnel is a Calgary writer whose short fiction has been nominated for the Journey Prize and has appeared in The Amethyst Review, Forum and lichen literary journal. She is currently marketing her first novel.







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