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book review

Lavorato explores profound themes against a rich historical backdrop.

So often, within the narrative of our global village, Canadians are depicted as kindly, bleeding-hearted, apologetic, meek (yes, I know there's a certain political figure who is currently and singlehandedly attempting to dismantle these stereotypes for us, but let's pretend that's not happening)–which makes it refreshing when a Canadian novel with historical context proves that not only are we interesting, we're also dark, twisted, possessors of furtive desires and murky pasts.

In Serafim and Claire, the illicit back story of 1920s Montreal is done elegiac justice by author Mark Lavorato. The novel tells the story of how two people – Claire Audette, a single-minded dancer who loves her art above all else; and Serafim Vieira, a naïve photographer who clings to home and first love but is carried away from both on the wings of fate – eventually meet and entwine. But it's not a love story, not really. Through compelling secondary character Antonino, a friend Serafim meets as he sails from Portugal to Montreal, the past injustices waged against European immigrants are explored, as well as the blighted end to which political idealism was often brought at that time. And this is not all: the push and pull between the English and the French, the repressive realities of the Catholic church, the early stirrings of the feminist movement juxtaposed against the seedy, prostitution-heavy underbelly of the city also inform the narrative of Serafim and Claire.

Ultimately, though, Serafim and Claire is not about these things. It's about the passions that drive us and the idea the we can either repress them and allow ourselves to be tamed – living always without that certain something the French might call je ne sais quoi, and filled with something Serafim refers to as saudade, an untranslatable Portuguese word that describes a longing for things that are absent but that may never have been had in the first place – or be bold and go after everything at all cost. There is no balance between these two ways of living, Lavorato suggests. No right choice, no way to know if we're blessed and secure, or just boring.

The book opens with Claire stricken by a life-threatening infection it eventually becomes clear is probably not appendicitis. Fortunately for her, she has a doctor friend who has provided the cover story and thus saved her from damnation. The consequences of sex, particularly as they relate to women, provide good context for the necessity of feminism, a movement Claire's sister Cecile is actively involved in championing. Cecile's letters are an ironic piece of the jigsaw plot, given that, even as she writes to her sister with breathless self-righteousness, she has no true idea of just how indignant she ought to be about the state of gender inequality.

Claire, it might be argued, makes her own bed – literally and figuratively. There are consequences to actions; we are taught this from childhood. Except here's the thing: not everyone suffers, even though everyone sins. This is highlighted by Claire's plight, and also when she later reflects on how she once tried to help a fellow dancer deal with an unwanted pregnancy, only to have the young woman resurface a year later, pinprick marks in the crooks of her elbows, seeking asylum from the men who might beat her for switching procurers (1920s speak for "pimp") because she has no other choice but to prostitute herself. Meanwhile, the man equally responsible for her ruin likely doesn't even remember her name. Again, this imbalance is displayed when Serafim, realizing he is waiting around for a ship that may never come in, loses his virginity to a prostitute but isn't allowed any post-coital downtime on account of a police raid. His mistress quickly quells his fears of prison time by explaining he'll simply need to pay his bail at the police station and be on his way. "They only want your five dollars, whereas I'll likely have to give a little more," she tells him with a wink, dishearteningly acquiescent to the ties that bind her.

Despite being deflowered under such circumstances, Serafim is the most romantic of all the characters in a novel where romance, essentially, dies a slow and painful death. One of the best scenes – and there are many evocative ones: Lavorato has also published poetry; he writes with the assurance of someone who sees the world as it is and can boil these observations down into stanzas or spread them out over a complex account of life and loss, at will – involves a young woman, the initial object of Serafim's affection, pouring tea. Most other writers, myself included, would need someone to remove at least one article of clothing in order to achieve such heights of arousal. But the restraint here is what makes it all so provocative. (I will never look at teaspoons – "the sullied spoon that lay sated in the saucer afterwards, its only purpose, the only point of its existence, served" – the same way again.)

While Lavorato rises to the challenge of keeping the many veins of this novel flowing with plot most of the time, there are instances where the pacing lags, particularly when events are seen from the perspective of Serafim in one chapter and Claire the next. Probably, this tactic would have worked better if the alteration in viewpoints on the same scenes provided revelations for the reader, instead of repeating information and unnecessarily halted the breathless trajectory of the novel.

The trajectory, by the way, is down. Serafim and Claire are undone in a manner that is Dante-esque in its severity, and yet the final scenes are surprisingly, almost distressingly, redemptive. The moral, if there is one: beware the consequences of taking the high road or the low, because each is equally fraught with peril. Also, never tip your hand. "What would we be without our secrets?" Claire eventually asks her sister. "Empty," Cecile replies – and perhaps truer words have never been spoken.

Marissa Stapley's first novel, Mating for Life, will be released in June.