Kiss the Undertow by Marie-Hélène Larochelle, trans. Michelle Winters

A competitive swimmer and university student in Toronto is selected to attend a summer training program in Bordeaux. In the meantime, her volatile and domineering coach puts her through bizarre, painful rituals at his apartment, nominally designed to release her of her impurities. But in her downtime, she craves filth, sniffing a racoon carcass, licking a clump of moss, ingesting “thick, viscous, syrupy” river water. (Seriously, anyone from Toronto can tell you that the thought of swallowing Don River water is truly disturbing!) She spends most of her time with her teammates, a largely undifferentiated group who travel in a pack creating chaos, yet she is isolated and emotionally numb. As she pushes herself to please her coach through a brutal training regimen, her body and mind begin to falter – yet she is determined to make it to Bordeaux. The approaching trip, however, will push her to new and terrifying extremes.

Written in rhythmic prose that engages all the senses through thick description, Kiss the Undertow is as unrelenting as the narrator’s training.

Written in rhythmic prose that engages all the senses through thick description, Kiss the Undertow is as unrelenting as the narrator’s training. Though short at just 171 pages, it’s a dense and detailed depiction of abuse, exploitation, and self-harm, told with narrative precision. Marie-Hélène Larochelle’s prose, translated wonderfully by Michelle Winters, is unflinching as it engages the body experiencing pleasure and pain, oozing and leaking and feeling. The lyrical descriptions of the disgusting and abject create a striking contrast: beautiful descriptions of ugly things. The feeling of exhaustion I had while reading it mirrors the narrator’s experience, dragging herself through her life as she weakens and withdraws. She’s a fascinatingly slippery narrator – closed-off in many ways, with motivations that are often difficult to understand. This makes the narrative structure of the novel, a chronological log of her daily life, more interesting, as we are denied access to much of her inner world through her detached recounting of events. We are spectators watching with frequent horror as she hurts herself and is hurt, engaging in self-destructive activities. The few moments of intense emotion are especially impactful given her general numb acceptance; the joy she experiences while swimming in the ocean in France, the only time she seems truly happy in the water, is one such moment of puncture. It’s a moment of relief for our narrator, and for readers, too.

With French-language literature so often overlooked in discussions of CanLit, this difficult, intense, and confident novel in translation is a strong contribution to a landscape that almost exclusively privileges Anglophone works.

With French-language literature so often overlooked in discussions of CanLit, this difficult, intense, and confident novel in translation is a strong contribution to a landscape that almost exclusively privileges Anglophone works. It is a reminder that Francophone culture, often seen as parallel to but not fully incorporated into Canadian art and media, is a rich site of ideas. For fans of dark, atmospheric literature with a focus on difficult characters, Marie-Hélène Larochelle and Michelle Winters offer Anglophone readers a gripping novel in translation.

MARIE-HÉLÈNE LAROCHELLE used to be a competitive swimmer and is now an associate professor at York University. Her research and writing focus on invective, violence, and discomfort in literature, areas abundantly explored in her first novel, Daniil and VanyaKiss the Undertow (Je suis le courant la vase) was a French-language finalist for the 2022 Trillium Book Award. She lives in Toronto.

MICHELLE WINTERS is a writer, painter, and translator born and raised in Saint John, NB. Her debut novel, I Am a Truck, was shortlisted for the 2017 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Her work has been published in This MagazineDragnetTaddle Creek, and the Humber Literary Review. She is the translator of Daniil and Vanya by Marie-Hélène Larochelle. She lives in Toronto.

Publisher: House of Anansi Press (June 4, 2024)
Paperback 5.25″ x 8″ | 184 pages
ISBN: 9781487012106

Clementine Oberst is a Ph.D. candidate specializing in television studies. Born and raised in Toronto, she has lived in Montreal and Glasgow and now calls Hamilton home. When she isn't writing her dissertation, Clementine can be found knitting, trying to cultivate a green thumb, and playing with her cats. She loves nothing more than losing herself in a good book. You can connect with her on Instagram @clementinereads.

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