As with her first novel, On the Proper Use of Stars, Dominique Fortier’s Wonder reimagines the lives of historical figures. Where her previous book, also translated by Sheila Fischman, revisited the infamous Franklin Expedition, a story we all know relatively well, in Wonder her subjects are somewhat more obscure: Baptiste Cyparis, the man who in 1902 survived the volcanic eruption that devastated his native island country, Martinique, killing some 30,000 people in a single day, and subsequently was invited to tour as The Man Who Survived Doomsday with the Barnum and Bailey circus; and Edward Love, an Oxford mathematician whose predicative work in geodynamics contributed to the scientific understanding of the phenomenon of earthquakes through a investigation in the property of elasticity with regard to the seismic plates surrounding Earth’s molten core.
In the third section of the book, where Fortier connects the two historical strands through a gardener and dog-walker falling in love in contemporary Montreal, that core is subject to a tedious metaphor, casting it as a stand-in for the unknowable machinations of the human heart. “The earth’s core is made up of a blend of iron and nickel …”
Fortier begins her brief essayistic digression shortly after the couple-to-be discuss the dog-walker’s heart murmur. It continues on to its saccharine conclusion, after telling us that through some trick of gravity, the surface of the earth travels at a slightly different speed than the core, some 3,000 kilometres below: “a breath-taking observation: the heart and the celestial body spin together in space, with the same movement but a different rhythm.” Isolated from the novel, the essay exists as a beautiful meditation, and Fortier offers other brief digressions, on Montreal, mountains, and so on, of equal standing. But wrapped in the schlocky package of the novel, they lose their lustrous power and became more grist for an exhausted mill that has ground every word of this story down to a uniformly fine but incredibly dull piece of work.
While the story of Baptiste Cyparis’s life is rich with the narrative possibility or terror and delight – a circus performer! with the added drama of apocalypse! – the character here feels so underdeveloped as to become boring. While very little is known about the man’s youth in reality, Fortier imagines Baptiste was raised by racist white relatives, who treated him, to say the least, unkindly. It’s true that Baptiste, who actually performed under the name Ludger Sylbaris, was the first black person to perform in Barnum and Bailey’s informally segregated circus, but that fact goes unmentioned in Fortier’s fictionalized account of his life. Instead, he is subject to glancing racism on the part of the circus’s very fat lady, and hotel staff that host the performers in a segregated dining room. Despite the close third-person voice used through out, Fortier denies the reader entry into Baptiste’s point of view on these matters, even though she takes us into his thoughts on many others – such as when, as a boy, Baptiste discovers the failings of his church, or, as an adult, his intense, complicated feelings associated with having sex with the boss’s wife.
When Fortier moves on to the second storyline, about the mathematician Edward Love, her interest in the idea of nominative determinism reveals itself; where she had written that Baptiste answered to many names, never quite sure of himself, here the story of a man named Love is turned into a cinematic, intellectually passionate romance. Love and his new wife wander the world, delighting in each other and the capacity of each for close, adoring observation of their earthly surroundings, as if they’re in some particularly edifying rom-com. They even visit Martinique shortly before the fateful eruption, which of course is timed such that the couple faces their ruin at nearly the same moment that Baptiste is miraculously surviving the end of his own world.
Unlike a good sideshow marvel or the literally awesome power just beneath the surface of the earth, Wonder is wholly unaffecting, dealing mostly in unearned sentimentality. Fortier’s evocations of the fearsome, stunning natural world and its mysterious workings ring hollow even as they stink of unsublimated research. The novel uses science and history in the service of concocting unsatisfying characters and lazy, cliched ideas about fate and love. How disappointing to read a book called Wonder and yet feel I’ve been robbed of the feeling.
Emily M. Keeler is the editor of Little Brother magazine.