Nirliit by Juliana Léveillé-Trudel

On the back cover of Nirliit (2018, Véhicule Press) there is a quote by Dorothée Berryman of La Presse that perfectly sums up how I felt about reading this small, but transcendent novel: “I’m about to reread this book because its powerful beauty haunts me.” I did reread the book, but only after I was almost finished it and I felt I needed to go back to recapture the mood of the book; I felt I was reading it too fast and not absorbing the acute perceptions of the author regarding her time spent in the northern Quebec Inuit village of Salluit. The book’s 140 pages are divided into two parts: Part One: Eva and Part Two: Elijah. The speaker is unnamed, but the stories are based on the real-life experiences of the author as an educator who spends the summer in Salluit. The story is told in the framework of a monologue, and it works quite well; it seems more fact than fiction as a result.

Nirliit was an unexpected and intriguingly good read.

Part One: Eva

Part One serves as an introduction to the second northernmost Quebec Inuit community of Salluit. We also discover that the speaker/author has lost her best friend Eva to an apparent murder by a jealous boyfriend, although the body is never found. It is presumed the body was cast into the river and has been taken out to sea. In between remembrances of Eva, we are filled in on what life is like for the people of Salluit: poor, isolated, too many children, too many drugs and too much alcohol make for what the author calls “lives like Greek tragedies.” She continues: “How you would make Shakespeare drool with your horrible pain and despair! I have no idea how you cope. I have enough trouble dealing with my own little problems.”

However, the beauty of the magnificent tundra serves as a balance to all the despair she sees and feels in the village:

“Personally, I love it here. I love the kids, the people, the language, the dogs, the landscape, the midnight sun, the aurora borealis, the caribou, the tundra, the mountains, the walks.”

However, as she ponders the needless deaths of Salluit’s people she reveals her feelings to the deceased Eva:

“And you die. You never stop dying…..I can’t take it. It’s too much. I can’t keep leaving this place and wonder who will be next, who will be the one I won’t see anymore, the one who won’t be there next year when I come back. I can’t take this.”

Part One is full of the speaker/author’s mixed emotions as she loves the beauty of the place and the people, yet detests its ugly side that is ever-present. All too quickly, the summer is over and the speaker/author must return south to Montreal, flying south like the geese (Nirliit). Eva’s body still has not been recovered, and now her thoughts drift to Eva’s son Elijah, whose story is told in Part Two.

Part Two: Elijah

Part Two of Nirliit is told differently than Part One. This time the speaker/author is “talking” to Elijah from an elevated perspective as opposed to Part One where she was more “on the ground” so to speak, in Salluit. She recounts to Elijah the story of his life since his mother disappeared and has never been found. His story too is a tragedy worthy of The Bard himself: love triangles, jealousy, drunkenness, delusions of grandeur and questions of fatherhood abound. There is strife between the workers who come up from the south (Quebec City, Montreal, Gaspe, etc.) and the young men of Salluit as the young Inuit women pursue a “white” lover. When the workers return South for the winter, the women left behind (often with child) wonder if their lovers will ever return in May.

White people are unfair competition. They don’t have to be good-looking to take your women; the paleness of their skin is enough of an attraction. They represent the possibility of another place, an elsewhere, another life, a little happiness, maybe.

Conclusion

Nirliit was an unexpected and intriguingly good read. Told in a serious, direct tone, it serves to highlight the life of the Inuit in their remote villages where there is not much for the residents to do except try to get an education (often the only way out), hold a job, and try to avoid the ever-present culture of drugs, alcohol and violent relationships. In Part One, the author/speaker is reminded of the words of Félix Leclerc: “The best way to kill a man is to pay him to do nothing.”

Five stars for an excellent debut (and translation) of a book that is sensitive to the plight of the modern-day Inuit and the North American way of life that has been imposed – some may say forced – on them. Nirliit is added to my 2018 Longlist for a “The Very Best!” Book Award for Fiction.

Nirliit is Juliana Léveillé-Trudel’s first novel, and it was translated from the original French by Anita Anand.
Published by Vehicule Press under their Esplanade fiction imprint.

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