Lucien & Olivia by André Narbonne

Coming to Lucien & Olivia after it had been longlisted for the Giller Prize earlier this year was interesting, and a really great way to be reminded of what a nominated book can be, instead of what it should be. Lucien & Olivia by André Narbonne is slim and unassuming, a little 110-page piece of fiction which rebuffs the grand spotlight it’s been given, and instead lives in its quiet little world: sad and charming at the same time. This was a wonderfully complex love story, which avoided being too predictable, and was also very firmly situated in Halifax, despite the story being one punctuated with long absences.

“This was a wonderfully complex love story, which avoided being too predictable, and was also very firmly situated in Halifax.”

There is nothing I love more than a novel set in a place I know, and so the second I realized that Halifax was a quiet figure in the back of Lucien & Olivia, I knew I was going to be incredibly fond of this book. Not only does Narbonne write a very clear Halifax, one that those familiar with the city can immediately locate the story in, but the novel is also set in the 1980s version of Halifax. I lived in Halifax in the mid-2010s, but my parents lived there in the 1980s, and every time I went around the city with them, they would talk about what used to be on that corner, or where they lived. Lucien & Olivia is rooted in an understanding of the peninsula that really enriched the story.

Lucien is a marine engineer who spends most of his time at sea, the freighter he works on constantly going from port to port. He is a Haligonian who’s hardly there. On one of his months home, his roommate Sylvia invites him out with her friends, where he has a disastrous meeting with Cathy and Olivia. Cathy isn’t bothered by this, and they later hook up, though it fizzles quickly. However, the dislike he shares with Olivia from their first meeting vanishes on a night out again, where they realize they fit together. What follows is an intense, fraught relationship of longing and missing, interrupted by brief visits in Halifax, when Lucien’s ship is in port, or he finally gets a replacement and can go on leave. Accustomed to being at sea and not linked to shore, Lucien is surprised by the intensity of his feelings for Olivia, who asks him not to say he loves her.

This is a novel which sits in a time which we moved so quickly past: existing in the time just before constant connectivity, Olivia and Lucien are forced to rely on letters and phone calls once he can get to a phone in port. It plays on that nostalgia but also paints a picture of the odds a long-distance relationship would be fighting against then. Contrasting with the romance of their days in Halifax are Lucien’s routine days on the ship, training Harry, a new hand, and living with his coworkers. Narbonne was a marine engineer before becoming a professor and writer, and the lived experience is in evidence here – knowing a fair number of sailors myself, the passages where Lucien was on the boat sounded a lot like the stories they’ve told me.

Lucien & Olivia is a stunning book. I was worried throughout that this was going to be a crash-and-burn romance, but Narbonne neatly avoids that obvious trope with a beautiful conclusion. The writing was so lovely and immersive, and I had a very pleasant time reading it. A novel for those who love Halifax, a complicated romance, and unexpected feelings.

About the Author

A marine engineer by first trade, André Narbonne was living out of his duffel bag when he arrived in Halifax on a damaged tanker in the mid-eighties. He completed two degrees in English at Dalhousie University – where he was a Killam Scholar – and his Ph.D. in Canadian literature at the University of Western Ontario. He is a former chair of the Halifax chapter of the Canadian Poetry Association. His short stories have won the Atlantic Writing Competition, the FreeFall Prose Contest, and the David Adams Richards Prize and were anthologized in Best Canadian Stories. He teaches English & Creative Writing at the University of Windsor and is the fiction editor of the Windsor Review.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Black Moss Press (March 30 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 120 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0887536263
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0887536267

Alison Manley bounced around the Maritimes before landing in Miramichi, NB, where she works as a hospital librarian. She has an honours BA in political science and English from St. Francis Xavier University, and a Master of Library and Information Studies from Dalhousie University. When she's not reading biomedical research for her work, she likes reading poetry, contemporary and historical fiction, and personal essays. Noted for a love of bright colours (and lipstick), you can find her wandering the banks of the Miramichi River with a book and a paintbrush.