The Music Game by Stéphanie Clermont

            The Music Game by Stéphanie Clermont, translated from french by JC Sutcliffe, is a beautifully written, poetic book that blends and queers short story and novel genres, and queers gender with Jess’s character. Jess is a minor character but is referred to using “he/him” pronouns and then abruptly shifts to “she/her” pronouns in the same story. Given its musical prose, the title The Music Game is excellent. The text follows a group of friends — primarily three women Celine, Sabrina, and Julie — as they grow and grieve the loss of their friend who dies by suicide. The book moves back and forth between their childhoods and their early twenties, mostly in Ottawa and Montreal. While I adored the musical prose, I do wish I was more prepared for how graphic and triggering some scenes would be. I believe that books in general should have content warnings on the inside cover, and this one especially needs content warnings. Before I get deep into this review I want to say that The Music Game contains graphic depictions of domestic abuse, physical and emotional abuse, rape, sexual assault, predatory older men, and suicide. The suicide itself is not graphic, but it is implied and depictions of grief and depression are graphic. As the text discusses all of these topics, my review will as well.

            The book is broken up into five parts and oscillates between perspectives, with later parts often providing context for earlier stories. The book is mostly third person, with Sabrina’s and Julie’s perspectives in first person. The prologue immediately lets readers know the tragedy of Vincent’s death, and further submerges us into the deep, musical, and poetic language:

There are barely any of these quiet places, places where you can live and die in peace. There are barely any left. And the fewer there are, the less we remember that other life, the one that begins in the stomach and explodes in the throat, in the eyes, between our legs, in our tongues that touch the sun. (13)

The final line in this paragraph especially reads like poetry; it has a rhythm and a flow like water, like music. This sound and rhythm moves in the prose throughout the entire book. The closing chapter of the book, titled “The Music Game” takes readers back to a moment in the middle of the text where the large group of friends are in a cabin, hungover, and talking about music. They remember that they know so many songs because of the music game, in which one person tells a story and everyone tries to find the perfect song to match that story. The book ends with Vincent sharing “Orphan’s Lament” with everyone, which is the song that Tahar plays at Vincent’s funeral earlier on in the book. The stories are structured so that after you finish one you cannot forget about it. Each chapter, each story, reminds readers of ones before, or provides necessary context or added layers of emotion to the ones preceding it. This structure mimics music (a returning refrain or chorus), but it also exemplifies life and grief. Moments in life don’t simply pass by to be forgotten about once they’ve ended, and healing isn’t linear. Clermont makes this especially clear in the short chapter “Horror” which regards rape. Clermont writes:

What would be easier to swallow in the dark, between young girls in flower, sitting around with a bowl of popcorn and a horror movie? He raped me and I think about it every time I try to touch myself? He raped me and I will never get better … That’s it, that’s almost it, but it’s not quite it. That’s it, and it’s what’s not said. It’s what I refuse to give. … I’m talking about nothing. Let it go. If you don’t get it, then forget it. (273)

 Grief, trauma, and memory continue to take us back to moments of intense sadness, horror, and joy too. The structure of the book itself mimics this process of growing up and “moving on” that is constantly and inextricably attached to the past and to events we may wish to forget. It is not always something that can be explained with words, sometimes — and especially regarding trauma because that it not only remembering past it is re-living the traumatic experience — it can only be felt, so “if you don’t get it, then forget it.”

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The characters are not very diverse, and at times I found it difficult to differentiate between characters as the voice sounds the same for both Julie and Sabrina, and for others as well. Overall, though, The Music Game does not shy away from difficult content and truly makes you feel for its characters and what they suffer through. What I found most impressive is how encapsulating the prose is, and the excellent use of structure and chapter order to mimic the very process of growing up and healing that readers are witness to, and have no doubt experienced themselves in their own ways.

Born and raised in Ottawa, Ontario, Stéfanie Clermont travelled throughout Canada and the United States, working at a wide variety of jobs, before settling in Montreal in 2012. The Music Game, her first book, won the prestigious Ringuet Prize of the Quebec Academy of Arts and Letters, the Quebec Arts Council’s prize for a new work by a young artist, and the Adrienne Choquette Prize for short stories. It was a finalist for the Grand Prix du Livre de Montréal and was included in Le Combat des livres, the French-language counterpart of Canada Reads.
JC Sutcliffe is a writer and translator. Her most recent translations include Worst Case, We Get Married by Sophie Bienvenu and Mama’s Boy Behind Bars by David Goudreault. She has lived in England, France and Canada.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Biblioasis (Feb. 8 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 288 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1771963786
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1771963787