Toronto poet Dani Couture’s debut novel begins almost mythically, with 11-year-old Leo Beaudoin falling through river ice in the small mill town of Le Pin, a few hours northwest of Quebec City. The rest of the story follows the drowned boy’s family over the next year, as they attempt to cope with their loss and move on.
Leo’s twin, Ferd, refuses to accept that his brother is gone, and starts to leave apologetic notes pleading for his return in every pool of water he can find. The boys’ alcoholic bartender father, Gaetan, disappears after a fire burns down the Shop, where their mother, Algoma, works.
Couture handles this series of family tragedies matter-of-factly and with subtle humour. As in her poetry, she focuses on recurring themes – water, boats, hunting, meat, twins, being twinless – that appear in crisp, often surprising ways.
The chapters are short and thick with description, which works well for establishing place and character, as in the enumeration of items in the Beaudoins’ cluttered house and the ill-fitting outfits pregnant and thrifty Algoma fashions for herself. But sometimes the prose meanders, leaving the reader to wonder where the plot is going.
Couture’s affectionately drawn characters don’t know where they are going either; their story is a slow, wintry tale of mourning and waiting. But the author displays a deft hand with dialogue and a good understanding of how families interact, and she delights in details, from the dark trick Ferd plays on the gentler Leo with a kildeer egg, to the entries Algoma adds to Gaetan’s forgotten weather journal, to the loving but complicated relationship between Algoma and her flirtatious older sister.
Pacing aside, this is a very good first novel from a refreshing new voice.