Annie Perreault’s The Woman in Valencia* opens with two quotes that she may well have constructed the story of her antagonist Claire Halde around.
One by Chekhov:
“Indifference is the paralysis of the soul; it is premature death.”
And the other by Marguerite Duras:
“How to avoid going back? Get lost. I don’t know how. You’ll learn. I need some signpost to lead me astray. Make your mind a blank. Refuse to recognize familiar landmarks. Turn your steps towards the most hostile point on the horizon, towards the vast marshlands, bewilderingly criss-crossed by a thousand causeways.”
The book is divided into two parts: “Three Days in Valencia” and “Return to Valencia” and the quotes above serve as the theme for each. There are two voices as well: that of the narrator for Claire’s appearances and the first-person for her daughter’s part later in the book.
Imagine the scene that we are presented with at the start of Claire’s story: she is sunbathing next to a rooftop pool at a hotel in Valencia. Her husband Jean and their two young children are playing in the pool. Claire’s mind is elsewhere, worry-free; in a fog. Then, a stranger quickly approaches, “a blonde bag of bones”, blood dripping from her bandaged wrist. She says some words in broken English, hands Claire her bag and then drops over the side of the railing to her death. Claire’s lifelong struggle with her indifference to a stranger in need commences.
“Claire Halde will keep this story from her friends and family, and Jean will eventually tell her that he’s sick of hearing about it. She will carry the secret around like a vicious scar, and the encounter in Valencia will become engraved on her mind. A crack in the heretofore smooth finish, a defect, a burden, a sense of self-loathing, the biggest failure of her life. In the wake of the woman’s death, she will hand herself down a sentence of silence and self-effacement and something resembling guilt.”
So goes part one of The Woman in Valencia, as we, the reader and witness to Claire’s moment of indifference, are treated to some of the best-penned psychological insights into a tortured mind as I’ve come across in some time. The immobilizing and overwhelming guilt that Claire carries the rest of her days is well portrayed by Ms. Perreault. Claire regrets that in a moment of inertia, she never acted to stop the woman, or even offer help. She will soon leave her husband who fails to understand her emotions. “…you didn’t even goddamn care enough to hug me, you did f*** all to comfort me after she killed herself right in front of me you piece of …”
Part Two alternates between Claire’s return to Valencia and her grown daughter’s marathon in that same city. Laure is there to fulfill one of her mother’s wishes that she could run a marathon with one of her children; it was on her bucket list. This part of the book alternates between Claire’s return to Valencia in 2015 and Laure’s marathon run, which is in 2025. Claire’s desire to return is initiated by a traumatic scene in a rainy Montreal that recalls the incident in Valencia six years earlier.
“Valencia. The feelings of impotence and imminent danger, buried deep inside her body for almost six years now, come rushing to the fore.”
So the reader finds themselves back in Valencia with Claire and Laure in two different years. Two distinct women, sharing DNA but little else since Laure was young when Claire walked out of her life and was raised by Jean (along with her brother Leon). Jean, to his credit, kept everything of Claire’s, particularly all her journals, and has shared them with Laure so that she has an awareness of her mother. She will honour one of her mother’s wishes to run a marathon with one of her children for what would be Claire’s fiftieth birthday. She will do it in Valencia, Claire’s last known whereabouts.
In conclusion, while QC Fiction may have published its most accessible title yet, it is not wholly lacking the subtleties that allow it to stand alongside its other notable releases such as Tatouine and Listening for Jupiter. There is a certain mystery to the text the reader has to figure out as they progress and an economy of details that mark many of their books. In short, I truly savoured reading The Woman in Valencia being fully drawn into Claire’s mind through her thoughts, actions, and inactions.
I wish to conclude this review with Jean’s words to Laure the day he gives her Claire’s journals. It’s the one time he actually contributes anything meaningful to the story and it contains a morsel of regret along with some caution.
“…they’ll help you understand a few things about your mother, and about me too, things you might wish you’d never known, but actually they don’t explain anything, some things defy explanation: one day, people are there with you and you love each other, and then something breaks and they’re not there anymore, they’re somewhere else, it’s cruel and you don’t know why, but that’s just the way it is, and the sooner you understand that, the better off you are…”
*This review was based on an advance reading copy supplied by the publisher. The Woman in Valencia will be available in April 2021.
Annie Perreault was born in Montreal and graduated from McGill University with a degree in Russian studies and French literature. The Woman in Valencia is her first novel. It was shortlisted for the Rendez-vous du premier roman and was a finalist for the prestigious Prix Ringuet. Her 2015 collection of short stories L’occupation des jours received an Honourable Mention from the Prix Adrienne-Choquette, and she is a previous winner of the Grand Prix littéraire Radio-Canada for best short story.
About the Translator
Raised in the Laurentian town of Rawdon, Quebec, Ann Marie Boulanger returned to her native Montreal to pursue a BA in translation at Concordia University and has worked as a commercial translator since 1999. She is the owner of Traduction Proteus Inc., a certified translator, a mentor for aspiring members of her professional order, and a part-time lecturer in translation studies at McGill University’s School of Continuing Studies. She earned an MA in translation studies from Concordia in 2018. The Woman in Valencia is her first literary translation.
- Publisher : QC Fiction (March 15 2021)
- Paperback : 230 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1771862378
- ISBN-13 : 978-1771862370
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