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book review

Patrick Senécal

On Aug. 9, 1948, a group of 16 Québécois intellectuals and artists, including Jean-Paul Riopelle, gathered in a Montreal bookstore to sign the Refus global, an anti-establishment, anti-religious manifesto penned by Paul-Émile Borduas. According to Pierre Gauvreau, one of the signatories, the manifesto's principal message was: "God does not exist."

And yet, 64 years later, God still occasionally stars in Quebec fiction. Such is the case in bestselling author Patrick Senécal's latest novel, a chilling tale of an ordinary man's rancorous dance with disillusionment in the wake of insufferable loss. Senécal, known as "Quebec's Stephen King," is a prolific writer who has sold more than 500,000 books. Now, thanks to this first English translation of his work, he will finally have the chance to commune with English Canada.

When the book opens, Senécal's unnamed protagonist is what you'd call a model citizen: a responsible father, faithful husband and good businessman. Unlike his drinking buddy, Sylvain, who has carried on with his carefree playboy ways – girls, porn, pot, cocaine – Senécal's protagonist has learned to resist temptation. Until the unthinkable happens.

When his wife and children die in a car crash, a swift and terrifying shift occurs. It's as though a curtain lifts, revealing a terrible truth: Sometimes, very bad things happen to "good" people.

Former beliefs in reward or security abruptly go up in smoke. Quite horrifyingly, so does the character's conscience. Repressed violent tendencies, and a terrible rage against God's unfairness, rush to fill the void. Past values, like fidelity, suddenly strike him as ludicrous now that his wife is dead: "I've been keeping a lid on it for nine whole years, always doing the right thing, and what was the good of that, eh?" he bitterly spits out. Blinded by wrath, he seems to completely forget all the quiet rewards love might have offered along the way, as though he'd only chosen commitment for some big heavenly prize at the end. Or perhaps it's just too painful to remember the good parts. Either way, as he veers off into vengeful violence, one senses that, from the womb of misfortune, a devil has been born.

While Senécal's protagonist inspires little compassion, the author's writing technique successfully conjures fear, his poison pen remarkably efficient. Barely longer than 100 pages, Against God lurches forward at top speed, mimicking the protagonist's overnight metamorphosis. Unraveling in one relentless sentence, the novella skillfully replicates the kind of panic that sets in when one forgets to breathe, and the brain is flooded with merciless chatter. Plunged into fight-or-flight mode, the reader lurches forward too.

Eventually, one might hope for a breath of light to slip through the character's darkness, adding nuance. But the protagonist does not evolve much beyond his initial shift – first he is good, then he is bad – so those wishing for a more lifelike account might be disappointed by this lack of complexity. Consistent with the author's previous works, Against God is soaked in Christian values, presenting clearly defined, traditional notions of good and evil.

Love or hate this approach, one can't help but contemplate its lingering effectiveness within a relatively secular society, and wonder what this says about the collective unconscious. Senécal's popularity is perhaps proof that, at least in tales of terror, God still has selling power.

Kimberly Bourgeois is a Montreal writer/singer-songwriter. Her most recent CD is Kimberly and the Dreamtime.