Reading Marie-Hélène Larochelle’s debut novel is like watching a terrifying play. The sense of dread and horror is physically palpable, and the careful stagecraft of the writing – in Michelle Winters’s capable English translation – is precisely calibrated. Readers will find themselves unable to look away, whether they like it or not.
The novel follows Emma and Gregory, an affluent creative-class Toronto couple set on adopting a child. An international agency proffers twin baby boys, Daniil and Vanya, from a St. Petersburg orphanage, and soon the Canadian couple is on a plane to Russia to retrieve the children. “We were going to have everything we wanted,” Emma gushes when she hears the news. “We were ready to make every promise, to agree to everything required. We hastily signed the papers like we were at a party.” On the flight back, the twins fall violently, screamingly ill and a doctor grimly suggests they are suffering symptoms of alcohol poisoning.
Such doom-laden foreshadowing is direct and consistent enough that it ends up as a guiding soundtrack. The twins quickly grow to show violent, chilling absences of empathy and the fault lines of Emma and Gregory’s marriage bubble rapidly to the surface. The tensions of the book play on how – not if – it’s all going to hell.
The novel’s second half alternates the twins’ points of view with Emma’s, who has the first half’s perspective all to herself. It’s an effective way to prevent the book from becoming one note: the twins’ dual narration keeps them from becoming ciphers and expands the book’s emotional horizon. Further, Larochelle skilfully imbues their points of view with as much humanity as their mother’s. Thankfully, any clumsy attempts at making them “the real victims” is avoided, while still preserving a level of three-dimensional ambiguity to their actions.
However, the novel is at its best when it sits with wilfully ignorant Emma. She wants to be a good mom (or, at least, that’s what she thinks), and she has deeply convinced herself she loves her adopted children. Her refusal to see their more sinister qualities serves not just the plot’s relentless drive toward crack-up but deeper questions of parenthood and filial love – dark questions that match the spectre of the book’s violence. What are parents to do with children who are consistently cruel? What does it mean when parents are unable to understand their children? Are there bad reasons for becoming parents?
Larochelle traffics in few answers to those questions and, accordingly, the abrupt ending will not satisfy many readers, though perhaps this is the point. Regardless, the book is a remarkable achievement, and Larochelle is a writer to watch.