Impurity by Larry Tremblay, Translated by Sheila Fischman

Larry Tremblay is a playwright, poet and essayist in addition to novelist, and we feel the playwright at work in this book as scenes shift before us. Tremblay plays with us. He walks us through a “trap full of mirrors” where reflections cannot be trusted. The play within the play, the book within the book told through multiple characters’ points of view.

“Like a trap made up of mirrors, like one prison that contains another.”

Impurity opens with successful novelist Alice Livingston’s memories, suspicions and guilt as she lights a candle in a columbarium chapel. She imagines her philosopher husband Antoine returning to their house empty of furniture save for a single painting she hates, a ‘maelstrom of blotches’ like a Rorschach test. She imagines him picking up a book called Impurity with that painting as its cover. The cover makes him afraid.

We learn that Alice dies the day she delivers her novel entitled A Pure Heart to her publisher. The book has parallels to Antoine’s and her lives. Is it autobiographical? What is Tremblay saying when Antoine picks up Impurity, not Alice’s A Pure Heart?

Thus, this book of 160 pages begins its web of deception. Throughout, the reader puzzles over which characters are deceiving and being deceived and whether the reader is also victim.

Antoine is cynical about life and love and dismissive of his wife’s talent. She tells him that her writing is building the world of tomorrow. “Just read my novels carefully. Between the lines there is space and time. That’s where everything happens. That’s where the world is bursting out, emerging from the present.” Six months after Alice’s death, a journalist asks his opinion of the book, and he says he does not know its name. He has not read it. He asks, “Was their shared life a hidden tragedy or the unruffled happiness of an uneventful life?” If the latter, why does his deceased wife’s judgment keep him awake at night? And who is Alice? As she says, “Words are never innocent.”

Between the lines there is space and time. That’s where everything happens.

Alice chose ‘Jonathan’ as their son’s name, the inspiration being Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the bird who “represents the search for oneself.” Antoine’s relationship with his now-adult son, like every relationship, is complicated: “He notices a spider on the ceiling. Imagines what it must be like up there, with eight eyes and eight legs. Would he be lonely? Would he spend the night lying in wait for prey? …. He closes his eyes. A mild fear, unnamed, sweeps over him like a breeze announcing a distant storm. He thinks about his son.”

Antoine identifies with Antoine Roquentin (character in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea) and says he seeks the truth about himself and others. His name evokes as well Antoine Saint-Exupéry, aviator and author of the Little Prince who travels the universe to gain wisdom. But what is the truth? What is love, what does it mean to be human, and which memories can be trusted? How can one betray the people one loves? These and other questions emerge throughout Impurity.

I thoroughly enjoyed the interlocking layers of this book. Entertaining and complex, Impurity invites a second reading between the lines.

About the Author: Larry Tremblay is a writer, director, actor and specialist in Kathakali, an elaborate dance theatre form which he has studied on numerous trips to India. He has published more than twenty books as a playwright, poet, novelist and essayist, and he is one of Quebec’s most-produced and translated playwrights. Tremblay teaches acting at l’École supérieure de théâtre de l’Université du Québec à Montréal.

  • Paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Talonbooks
  • ISBN: 9781772012477

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About the Reviewer: Patricia Sandberg escaped a law career and became a writer. Her short stories have been shortlisted in competitions, published at The Cabinet of Heed and in the Lit Mag Love Anthology. She is hard at work on a World War I historical novel. Her 2016 award-winning, nonfiction book Sun Dogs and Yellowcake: Gunnar Mines, a Canadian Story is about life in a uranium mine in northern Canada during the height of the Cold War.

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