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book review

Bitter Rose
By Martine Delvaux, translated by David Homel, Linda Leith, 105 pages, $14.95

"I came into a world where no one spoke of men, they were not a subject of conversation. … Life was lived among girls." Martine Delvaux's Bitter Rose, originally published in 2009, keeps the promise of its first line. This postExpo 67 coming-of-age story is about girls and women – boys and men are background, if mentioned at all. At its centre is our narrator, who as a young girl moves from Montreal to Anjou, Ont. (The author may be drawing on her own experience here, as she also grew up in an Ontario francophone village.) True to its subject, the narration is scrappy in that teenage way of being honest for effect. In this short book several girls go missing or are killed, information presented matter-of-factly, as if to say, "That is the horror of life." La vie en rose, but the pink is cough syrup, not cotton candy.

Twenty-One Cardinals
By Jocelyne Saucier, translated by Rhonda Mullins, Coach House, 176 pages, $19.95

Twenty-One Cardinals begins on a jaunty note: Our narrator, nicknamed the Caboose because he's the last of 21 children sired by Albert Cardinal, boasts of his rough-and-tumble childhood in the first family of Norco, a once-prosperous zinc-mining town in northern Quebec. The occasion for the Caboose's excitement: The Cardinals, all of them, gather for the first time in 30 years to witness Albert receiving an award. What the Caboose misses in his enthusiasm is his older siblings' anxiety. One Cardinal, Angèle, is missing. From here the story delves into shadow as it passes from brother to sister to twin, each drawing closer to the mystery of Angèle's absence. This is the second novel by Jocelyne Saucier, author of 2015 Canada Reads finalist And the Birds Rained Down. Its original title translates as "heirs of the mine": Twenty-One Cardinals is an ominous, brooding novel about familial love and the price of that inheritance.

The Thought House of Philippa
By Suzanne Leblanc, translated by Oana Avasilichioaei & Ingrid Pam Dick, BookThug, 120 pages, $18

The Thought House of Philippa is fiction by topical mnemonics: It uses that ancient memorization technique of ordering memories by location in an imagined thought place. In Suzanne Lebanc's novel that thought place is Haus Wittgenstein, the house the philosopher designed for his sister. The recollections are those of Philippa as she considers her development as a capital-I Individual in the Great World, each chapter corresponding to a room in the thought house. Philippa emulates Wittgenstein not only in method but also in style: "I would not be less abstract than the discourse of the philosopher whose work had convinced me." The prose is indeed abstract – it reads more like a philosophical treatise than fiction – which should be a warning for some readers and bait for others. Leblanc demands deep engagement but rewards in pure, surprisingly sensual, thought. A dense novel that challenges notions of what a novel can be.