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Griffintown

By Marie Hélène Poitras, translated by Sheila Fischman, Cormorant, 288 pages, $21.95

In April a calèche horse collided with a car in the Montreal neighbourhood of Griffintown, renewing debate over the ethics of horse-drawn carriages in the city. The previous summer, photos of a calèche horse in apparent distress after slipping on a metal road plate prompted calls for ban on the industry. Similar events pepper Marie Hélène Poitras's Griffintown, a gritty, violent accounting of one calamitous season among the calèche drivers of the titular neighbourhood, though the novel precedes both these real-life incidents. All three works of fiction presented this week are not only French works in translation; they all claim some relation to America. Griffintown's relation is through its interpretation of the spaghetti Western, here applied to contemporary Montreal, though the calèche business is far from romanticized. Griffintown's style can seem disjointed at times because the narrative places the reader as an interloper; only with a twist near the end do we realize the revenge plot building this entire time.

The Party Wall

By Catherine Leroux, translated by Lazer Lederhendler, Biblioasis, 248 pages, $19.95

Catherine Leroux (born 1979) is of a new generation of Francophone writers who grew up under the influence of American pop culture and whose work is generally more outward-looking than traditional Quebec writing. The Party Wall, Leroux's first novel translated into English, has a continental scope: it touches down in Montreal, Ottawa, Tijuana, San Francisco, rural Saskatchewan and coastal New Brunswick, but arguably its linchpin is Savannah. For much of this book I forgot I was reading a translation at all (interpret that as you will). Initially, The Party Wall reads like a collection of linked stories; past the halfway mark, however, it reveals itself as something more intricate and cumulative. A party wall represents both difference and commonality: It divides two buildings but is shared between them – an apt metaphor for siblingship, the book's theme. A surprising, carefully structured novel that for English readers will bring to mind David Mitchell, this feels much more expansive than its page count.

English is Not a Magic Language

By Jacques Poulin, translated by Sheila Fischman, Esplanade, 140 pages, $18

As perhaps suggested by its title, this is the most self-consciously French book of these three. It concerns Francis Waterman, a grown man who identifies as a little brother. Everything about Francis is diminutive. He associates himself with Henri Richard, Rocket Richard's li'l bro. Where Francis's older brother Jack is a novelist, Francis takes on a related but low-key job as a professional reader. He drives around in a little car. Through Jack's struggles with his latest novel, Francis becomes obsessed with the former span of French North America, "from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, and from the Mississippi to the Rockies," now much reduced in size. Even the form of this book is miniature: it's a novella, one that looks like it might turn into The Big Sleep when a female client of Francis's goes mysteriously missing – only to turn into a charming little love story instead.