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summer reading

The secret room

'A woman hid here, once, to escape from something, or someone.' Our summer reading series continues with an excerpt from Nicolas Dickner's new novel, Six Degrees of Freedom

Lisa is stripping the veranda, and she's thinking about money again.

More specifically, she is thinking about the wealth of the house's erstwhile inhabitants. Yesterday morning, Robert discovered a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape 1939 in the cellar, lying on the earthen floor behind a pile of boards. The wine was undrinkable and unsellable, full of suspended particles.

Lisa's imagination went into overdrive. How did the bottle get there? Come to think of it, how did a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape get into Quebec before the Second World War? No doubt through a private importer. A bottle like this suggested a wine cellar, a luxurious wine cabinet, roasted game, a well-laden candle-lit table and a 78 of a Mozart concerto playing on the phonograph.

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Lisa is of the opinion that money buys happiness – and the people living in this house were obviously very happy.

For three days Lisa has been stripping the endless veranda girdling the house. At first it seemed preferable to emptying the attic full of bat shit, but now she isn't so sure anymore. Scraping guano or scraping paint – what's the difference? As she rasps away the eight layers of oil-based enamel covering the boards – mint green and jujube yellow and salmon pink – it occurs to her that each species stratifies a different variety of excrement.

Headphones covering her ears, she scrapes to the 4/4 beat of an obscure Byelorussian group that Éric introduced her to. She abruptly raises her head. She puts down her scraper and shuts off the music.

Robert is calling her.

She follows his voice to the vestibule, down the corridor, past the living room with its hall of mirrors, through the dining room and kitchen. She finds Robert kneeling at the far end of the pantry, half hidden behind a heap of wallpaper that has been torn to shreds, busy examining a triangular aperture.

"Look at what was under the wallpaper."

In front of him, the flowered paper has brought down a section of lath and plaster, exposing the entrance to a space between the partition and the exterior wall. Lisa instantly notices that the hole's dimensions are ideal for a somewhat skinny 15-year-old girl to slip through.

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Robert moves aside to let Lisa poke her head through the opening. The inexplicable void extends several metres to the left, where she can discern in the half-light, leaning against the side of the chimney, a crude ladder leading to the floor above. Lisa licks her index finger with the assurance of a veteran speleologist. No hint of a draft.

"There's a ladder."

Robert nods.

"Going where?"

"No idea. Want to go see?"

Her father hands her the work light, which is plugged into a 20-metre extension. Coiling the cord in her hand, like a deep-sea diver with her air line, Lisa squeezes through the hole and makes her way to the ladder. She imagines the treasure tucked away at the other end of the shadowy passage – for what would be the point of building one other than to stash Aztec mummies and halberds? The ladder goes up to a trap door cut into the floor of the second storey.

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She puts her foot on the first rung. The wood creaks but holds fast. Robert seems all at once to regret sending his daughter into this recess.

"Is it sturdy?"

Lisa nods. The little planks were nailed to the uprights decades ago, but they still appear to be sound. She starts to climb. Running along the walls are some ancient electric wires secured with porcelain insulators. Century-old forged nails protrude through the plaster lathing. Lisa brushes her finger against the tip of a nail. She thinks about the rich man who built the house, the mysterious Mr. Baskine. Was he thin or fat? She has trouble picturing him inching his way through this darkness bristling with metal.

When she reaches the top of the ladder, she sticks her head through the trap door. The passage continues for another five or six metres before disappearing behind the western corner. It probably runs all the way around the house. Does it possibly worm its way into the partitions between the rooms? Lisa remembers her father's comment a few days earlier to the effect that the second-storey walls were abnormally thick.

A drop of sweat slides down Lisa's temple. She starts to feel a throb in her stomach. She knows that the claustrophobia gene runs in her family and could manifest at any time. The Routiers expect elevators to break down the way other people expect asthma attacks or psoriasis.

She hoists herself onto the landing and pulls up a length of extension cord. One floor down, in the half-circle of light, she glimpses her father's backlit head. She gives him a thumbs-up – although the truth is she still feels that alarming throb in her stomach. She advances along the secret passageway clutching the extension cord. To cheer herself on, she imagines forgotten Monets and busts of Anubis.

Once she gets past the corner, Lisa ends up in a room – not much more than an enlargement of the passage, really – fitted out as a sort of hideaway. On the floor lie an almost brimming ashtray, a bottle of Barbancourt, a stack of Life magazines, a military flashlight and a purple cushion with golden pompoms devoured by generations of stubborn moths. The ground is littered with fossilized mice droppings that crunch underfoot. Lisa grabs the flashlight, wipes it on her sleeve and flips the switch. The jinni in the batteries is long gone. The ashtray is heaped with Craven "A" butts and there are two fingers of syrupy rum left in the bottle. On the rim of a drinking glass Lisa can still make out a brownish trace of lipstick. A woman hid here, once, to escape from something, or someone. Or simply from boredom, maybe. Maybe the people in this house were not so happy after all.

Lisa shines the light on the walls looking for clues as to the identity of the woman who used this closet. Nothing, no graffiti, not even a tiny Gertrude was here. She crouches to take a closer look at the February 1962 issue of Life lying open on the floor, face down, as though it has just been put there. John Glenn poses on the cover page with his calm eyes, his freckles and his astronaut's helmet. Lisa picks up the magazine. Whoever came here left off reading right in the middle of an article titled "Six Degrees of Freedom."

After a last look around, Lisa turns and makes her way back to the ladder, coiling the work light's cord as she goes. Stationed at the aperture, waiting for his daughter, Robert fidgets as though he were expecting Jacques Cousteau. He relieves her of the lamp and helps her stand up.

"Does it go very far?"

"Dead end. It stops at the corner of the house."

"See anything?"

Lisa brushes off her jeans. "Nope. Pipes, spiderwebs, old electric wires."

Without saying any more, making a show of youthful, imperial indifference, she goes back to stripping the veranda. After a moment of doubt, Robert shrugs and sets about patching the hole with a piece of drywall. In 48 hours, with four layers of plaster and two coats of latex, every trace of the secret passageway will have vanished, and Lisa can't imagine a more fitting outcome: A secret room is of no value unless it is kept a secret.

Excerpted from Six Degrees of Freedom by Nicolas Dickner and translated by Lazer Lederhendler. Copyright © Éditions Alto and Nicolas Dickner, 2015. English Translation Copyright © 2017 Lazer Lederhendler. Published by Vintage Canada/Alfred A. Knopf Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

A Q&A with Nicolas Dickner

Set-up this excerpt for us: Who's Lisa and why is she always thinking about money?

Lisa is a 15-year-old girl who lives with her father in an isolated trailer park southwest of Montreal, close to the U.S. border. She's too young to have a driver's licence or to get a real job, so she's spending the summer helping out her father, who earns his living – just barely – renovating old houses. Like more than a few adolescents in rural areas, Lisa feels bored and stuck. She's constantly dreaming up plans for her escape, but without money, she won't be going anywhere.

Lisa discovers a secret room, which contains, among other things, a Life magazine that includes the article that gives your novel its name. Was this a real article? What's the significance of the title?

This issue of Life really does exist, and I chose it because of the John Glenn cover – the theme of space exploration is one of the themes that appears throughout the novel. The article "Six Degrees of Freedom," on the other hand, is an invention. It's a term that's used in maritime engineering to describes the possible movements of a ship at sea – an allusion to Lisa's future exploits.

This is your third novel to be translated into English; how do you think your work changes, for better or worse, when it's published in a different tongue?

I'm a pretty visual writer, so I think that quality probably lends itself well to being translated. Some small nuances may get lost along the way, but [translator] Lazer Lederhendler is both meticulous and perceptive in the handling of my novels. When I read Lazer's English-language version, it feels like I've entered a familiar house. And then my editor, Pamela Murray, and I spend a fair amount of time emailing back and forth to polish the text. By the time one of my books appears in English, it's that version I consider the most "complete."

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