In her debut novel, Quebec photographer and teacher Claudine Dumont plunges the reader into the depths of a nightmare with a visceral immediacy that leaves one gasping for breath.
Emma is the sort of person who lives in the shadows, willing herself not to be noticed. She spends her life avoiding people and the pain they bring, drinking too much as a way to “forget the empty box of [her] life.” In a state of drunken half-consciousness, she is only partly aware of the men breaking into her apartment, taking her from her bed …
When she wakes, Emma finds herself locked in a featureless room with no windows, furnished only with a mattress, a drain in the floor, and a globe light in the ceiling. Her captors don’t communicate with her, though they respond to her needs as they see fit, providing her with water and a nutrient-substitute beverage, washing her, and grooming her. And then the experiments start.
Propelled by Dumont’s fragmented prose, ably translated by David Scott Hamilton, Captive is a harrowing, immersive experience. The writing style, initially disconcerting, eventually becomes the perfect vehicle for Emma’s experiences, shifting as the novel progresses and the captors’ deprivations become more harsh, while Emma’s coping skills improve.
The relatively compact size of the book belies its effectiveness. In fewer than 200 pages (of relatively large print), Emma and the reader undergo an experience as terrifying as it is mysterious, as painful as it is surreal. Only in the last few lines does the novel falter, with a single image – a movement toward explanation – that breaks the spell Dumont has so carefully created, and comes very close to scuttling the whole thing. Thankfully, Captive is written powerfully enough to withstand a final moment that feels, unfortunately, like a punchline.