Kamouraska (Hébert, trans. Norman Shapiro)

Kamouraska - Anne Hébert

A sympathetic modern reader might consider this novel an up close and personal depiction of the effects of PTSD, triggered by an impending loss of a spouse. It's actually a bit too studied and a bit too chronological to be that, but it certainly is a phantasmagorical walk through the thoughts (and nightmares) of a woman who has passed through a traumatic event. Said traumatic event is the murder of her husband by her lover, apparently with her full complicity, but whereas a nineteenth-century treatment of this event would be chiefly concerned with the immorality of that act and the outcome of the judicial process (it's based on an actual case in the 1830s in rural Quebec), neither of those things greatly preoccupy us as we inhabit the mind of Elisabeth. Instead, years and years later, about to be set free from a somewhat unsatisfactory marriage by the (natural) death of her second husband, Elisabeth finds herself prostrate and unwillingly (and in great sensory and emotional detail) reliving the events surrounding her freedom from her highly unsatisfactory marriage to her first.

 

That's a very dry and probably unfair summary of a book that's rich in moments, and whose central character is (for me, at least) compelling enough to keep me turning pages to see how she felt and experienced the already-known, or at least already hinted at, plot points. The stream of consciousness is handled very skilfully, and after a few pages orienting myself to the three houses in three towns that signify the three main stages of Elisabeth's married life, I never felt lost.

 

I'm glad I read this in translation; it's the sort of book where having merely schoolgirl French would completely ruin the experience. So kudos also to Norman Shapiro, the translator. What I read, fragmentary, associative, idiomatic without being slangy, could have been written originally in English for all that I could tell: I never stumbled, as one sometimes does in translations, over a strange phrase that could only be a compromise between two incongruent languages.

 

I'm generally pretty impatient with stream-of-consciousness narratives, so it says something that I actually looked forward to picking this one up and reading a few more pages every time I had the chance (the very short chapters, I found, were entirely conducive to the kind of reading you have to do with stream-of-consciousness).

 

Recommended if you like historical and a woman's point of view, and are not too put off by non-linear narrative.