The French language makes no distinction between the words for house and home – an inadequacy according to Governor General’s Literary Award–winning writer Dominique Fortier, whose sixth novel, Paper Houses, traces a fictionalized version of the life of 19th-century poet Emily Dickinson.
Paired with a plot strand detailing Fortier’s own search, after a move from Montreal to Boston, for something more than a mere maison, Dickinson emerges as something of an authority on the matter. Her obituary, after all, listed her occupation as “at home.” The ultimate homebody, she boasted homes nestled inside of homes, like Russian dolls: her hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts; her well-to-do family’s aptly named Homestead; her legendary garden; the bedroom she rarely left in her later years; her own fragile body. But as Fortier illustrates here, Dickinson also inhabited other, metaphysical homes: books, letters, and an unspoiled sense of vocation, referred to in poems such as “I dwell in Possibility.”
In Paper Houses, anecdotes from the lauded American poet’s childhood and adult life are expanded into a chronological series of vignettes featuring truly Dickinsonian details; much attention is paid to the flora and fauna that populated her poems. In one of the book’s most lyrical passages, Fortier personifies the flowers in Emily’s garden, cheekily calling the roses as “the worst, annoyed by the bees, bothered by the bright light, drunk on their own perfume.” Here and elsewhere, Rhonda Mullins, herself a Governor General’s Literary Award winner for translation, has made careful choices in service of the author’s precise, imagery-rich language. An example is her choice to render “les pages fines de la bible” as “the onionskin pages of the Bible,” elevating the English version from “fine pages.”
The action in Paper Houses is episodic and often understated. When Emily’s father asks her why she always gives him the chipped plate when she sets the table, she finds an unorthodox solution by smashing the plate. But amid the domestic drama, death is never far away, commencing with the loss of young Emily’s friend and cousin, Sophia, from typhus. The latter really happened, and though Fortier claims to have invented at least some of the events in this book, there is nothing sensational in her portrayal. In contrast, her intent seems to be to question the public’s ongoing search for a reason – some trauma, perhaps – that might explain Dickinson’s famous proclivity for seclusion. Baffled, Fortier wonders why self-imposed isolation isn’t the modus operandi of more writers.
This slim volume is propelled forward less by events in Dickinson’s life – there are few surprises here, at least for those who know the basic arc – than by the handful of passages in which author and subject intersect. Having followed her husband to Boston, Fortier initially sets up house in a chilly Victorian red brick on Holyoke Street, the name a nod to the women’s seminary Emily briefly attended. As Fortier writes, she resists making the four-hour drive to Homestead, choosing to instead inhabit Dickinson’s letters and poetry. It is a quiet affirmation of the idea at the heart of this book: a writer is most at home in the imagination.