A surprise return home triggers a chain of events, their strands weaving together a sinister web of dreams and reality, truth and lies, secrets and spells.
The Electric Baths*, like its predecessor, The Unknown Huntsman is composed in the absurdist style, but in comparison, The Electric Baths would appear to be somewhat less so. It follows that it is less humorous as well, but that doesn’t mean it has its mirthful moments.
Characters of Interest
Aside from Louise Buerre (who is renamed Louisa Louis as her stage name), there is Renée Lepine, who was at one time, Louise’s best friend, but are estranged for undisclosed reasons. Another main character is Bella Webb, a large, strong and strong-willed widow who places ads for new husbands, and Celeste, who works with Bella at the village store. As it was in Huntsman, the country is unnamed as is the village (“in the county of ***”), so the reader has no geographical references. There is a city nearby and there is one mention of a telephone (landline) and a car owned by the reclusive wealthy widow Sara Rosenberg who lives at Spenser Wood, a mansion just outside the village. No mention of smartphones, laptops or TVs. Difficult to get a time frame too, resulting in a dreamlike tale that pops out of nowhere and you wake up thinking “what was that all about?”
Thus, The Electric Baths is frustratingly enigmatic, and therein lies the fun in reading M. Fortier’s novels. The village setting makes it easy for the characters to interact and cross paths, and of course, gossip. This is practically a feminist work, for the men are relegated to secondary places. Renee’s husband is confined to a wheelchair, several are widows, and the men that reply to Bella’s ads are unworthy, and one is downright “abhorrent”. “I will never marry that” Bella says to herself.
A Deeper Dive
Nevertheless, I suspect there is more to the story (“Story is what can be taken out of the fiction and made into a movie.” – William Gass) than a village of gossipers, an estranged friend and a wealthy widow afraid to go into her mansion’s cellar where the electric baths are. Why did M.Fortier write The Electric Baths? Just to amuse himself? Possibly. Is there a message in the absurdism? After giving it much thought (and your mileage may vary), I keep coming back to: death. Death, and the reminders of impending death are entrenched throughout The Electric Baths. A man died in them. The electric baths. There are widows, and the elderly in the Saint-Colombe Hospital are so many that a bed is shared by three, the one in the middle eventually dying as does the young(ish) nun looking after them (“Boiled to death. Fell into a vat of hot water.”) In one haunting scene, a “bird of prey” (not a simple sparrow, mind you, but a bird that kills) crashes into a window near Renee and slowly dies in the hedge below. Death is all. through. the. book. But again, while you can find it if you go looking for it, it’s not standing there with a frying pan, ready to strike you on the head.
Maybe I’ve overanalyzed The Electric Baths, but I felt as if I needed to search for meaning after reading this followup to The Unknown Huntsman which, as Jade Colbert of Globe & Mail stated in her review: “Fortier’s debut is a dark commentary on community and intolerance.” This reviewer thinks Fortier’s sophomore effort could be considered a dark commentary on ageing and death, among other themes. I eagerly await his next novel.
*This review was based on an Advance Reading Copy supplied by QC Fiction.
The Electric Baths by Jean-Michel Fortier, Translated by Katherine Hastings
Paperback: 192 pages
Publisher: QC Fiction
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