A veil between the living and the dead is lifted to chilling effect in Cauchemar, the eerie debut novel by Toronto writer Alexandra Grigorescu. Set at the edge of a swamp in present-day Louisiana, the book dramatizes the effects of both small-town hate and supernatural forces on the life of a young pregnant woman not completely certain of what may be growing inside her. Grigorescu applies just the right tonal touch to her macabre subject matter, while exploring themes of illness and health, fatherhood and gender, and the limits of sanity.
Hannah’s mother is the notorious Christobelle, leader of a reclusive, heretical sect otherwise comprised exclusively of men, whose physical health deteriorates steadily under her sway. Shunned by the locals, Hannah is raised by a low-key spiritualist named Mae in an isolated old house deep in the swampland. Mae has used her own occult powers to protect Hannah from danger, but the elder woman’s death triggers a series of events that place Hannah squarely within harm’s way.
Grigorescu is a noted freelance journalist, and her descriptions of interactions between people and the world around them draw the reader in with their realism and detail. This makes the sudden forays into the absurd and surreal – teeming swarms of insects and amphibians, or evil entities that cause men to break women’s wrists – all the more striking and unnerving. Cauchemar is French for “nightmare,” and Grigorescu uses what can sometimes be an annoying device – dream sequences – very effectively to blur the boundaries between the imagined, the real, and the unimaginable.
Cauchemar suffers from a small number of distracting flaws: occasional overuse of adjectives, a few unconvincing plot developments, the unnecessary invocation of Halloween night as a plot device. But the book is full of riveting prose about complex, fallible characters. I rushed through the final chapter impatient to see how it would all end – and the ambiguous final plot twist cries out for a sequel.