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Damselfish

by Susan Ouriou

Already a reputed translator of works from French into English, Susan Ouriou now offers readers an ambitious debut novel. Impressive in its scope, the book attempts to cover a long list of themes, including religion, art, family, love, and loss. Unfortunately, the story is undercut by an imposing first-person narrator, making the novel often read like a personal journal.

Hope, a painter from Canada living in Mexico City, is surprised when her sister Faith, a linguistics researcher, shows up at Hope’s apartment wanting to move in. Hope begrudgingly allows her in, and then together they travel to Cuernavaca, where their mother lives. Communication among the three is a struggle, stilted and fraught with misunderstanding and silence. Hope blames the dysfunction on her father, Papi, who abandoned them when she was a child, running off to his homeland in Mexico. Her plan to unite the family in a search for Papi is thwarted when Faith, who it turns out is pregnant, grows deathly ill.

In a story where interpersonal relationships are key, the narrative focuses too much on Hope’s internal questioning of other people’s motives, doubts about her own motives, and her speculations about the future. The result is a lack of hard illustration by way of description and action. Hope’s voice often interrupts dialogue and character interaction, oversimplifying behaviour that should speak for itself. Leaving no room to form our own ideas, we are left judging Hope, who is indecisive, fickle in her opinions, and tends toward the overly sentimental.

Ouriou does give a more in-depth view of the other characters through their own journals, which Hope reads addictively. These entries from her sister and mother create a complex triangulation of perspective and offer a much-needed balance to the novel.