This small treasure of a book (130 pages) was first published in French in 2009, and Véhicule Press has had it translated (by Sheila Fischman) and released it as English is Not a Magic Language under their Esplanade Books fiction imprint. It is the story of two brothers, Jack, the elder brother and Francis the younger one. In between the two is their sister (who goes unnamed, but Francis refers to her as “Little Sister” even though she is a little older than him). Jack is a successful writer who is working on a new book based on the history of the French in North America. He lives in the same apartment building as Francis, who is a professional reader and is quite successful at that calling. The sister loves to travel and is a sprightly go-between with her two brothers, always helping, especially Jack who toils away day and night to complete his book, much to the detriment of his health and well-being. On the other hand, Francis’ work as a reader greatly benefits the people he reads to: a girl with a tragic past, a woman in a coma, and a little boy awaiting a heart operation. All respond positively in some way to his continued visits.
This little book might be considered a ‘quick read’, but it is by no means bereft of themes; it takes a little contemplating to tie some things together. Mr Poulin has artfully distilled down a story to the bare essentials, but in doing so, compels the reader to use their powers of thought to interpret certain circumstances. For example, the apparent dichotomy of the written word that is represented by Jack the author and Francis the reader. Jack, in writing his novels, is reclusive, talking to no one and shunning all media. He believes his books should speak for themselves. His health, ignored as he labors over words, begins to decline and his sister and brother must continually check in on him, bringing him food, cleaning up his apartment and so on. He laments: “the words come drop by drop.”
Francis, by his reading to others, has not only helped them to improve mentally and physically but has helped Francis grow as a person too. “It was the reading sessions that had enhanced my awareness and made me think,” he tells Jack’s girlfriend Marine.
However, there are underlying themes of love throughout English is Not a Magic Language. A love for books, for reading them, for writing them. There is the love for the characters in a book, who Francis says have all become a part of him now. There is also familial love and erotic love.
An amazing breakthrough for one of Francis’ clients is that of Limoilou, the girl with a sad past (Francis notes the scars on her wrists). Oddly enough, it is the journals of Lewis and Clark, and Francis’ skilled reading of them that draws out Limoilou as she begins to change from a passive listener to an active one, asking questions about the characters, and showing a particular interest in Sacagawea, the Bird Woman who helps Lewis and Clark acquire horses from the Shoshones: “Limoilou’s eyes were shining. I realized that she was simply happy. There were streaks of light on her face,” Francis comments. You can sense Limoilou’s love and heartfelt appreciation for what Francis has done for her over their many reading sessions. Marine, Jack’s girlfriend and Limoilou’s caretaker through this difficult time has come to love Francis too, albeit in a different sense.
To sum up, English is Not a Magic Language is a delightfully magical story with several themes to be found within its pages, and it is one book that will certainly enhance your love of reading.
Jacques Poulin, born in 1938 in Saint-Gédéon-de-Beauce, Quebec, is one of the leading novelists of his generation. The author of over a dozen novels, including Volkswagen Blues which introduced him to a wider American and Canadian audience, he has received many prizes. He lives in Québec City.
Award-winning translator Sheila Fischman has translated over 150 Quebec novels from French to English, including Michel Tremblay, Marie-Claire Blais and Kim Thúy. She is a recipient of the Molson Prize for the Arts. She lives in Montreal.