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Serafim and Claire

by Mark Lavorato

Montreal writer Mark Lavorato delivers an engaging third novel that does a lovely job infusing history into fiction. Set mostly in 1920s Montreal, Serafim and Claire is loaded with local colour and detail. The historical milieu becomes as much a character as Lavorato’s fictional creations.

Serafim grows up in Portugal and longs to be a photographer. Claire grows up in Montreal and longs to be a dancer. Their paths eventually cross, and the novel moves through their separate and shared stories as they struggle to earn a living and fulfill their artistic passions. Both make huge sacrifices in pursuit of their goals, and they must learn what can and cannot be accomplished in their search for meaningful, creative lives. They must also come to grips with the effect of luck – good and bad – while negotiating a hostile world and their own emotions.

Lavorato punctuates his fictional pas de deux with descriptions of photographs that freeze moments in time. The combination of movement and stasis results in a dazzling depiction of the challenges these young people face. Even when up against forces of overwhelming corruption and near-constant poverty, they keep trying.

The most fascinating character is Serafim’s friend Antonino, a young Italian whose commitment to anti-fascism places him in danger. Antonino is a remarkable creation, and his narrative thread is gripping. (I was touched to read, in Lavorato’s acknowledgements, that the character is based on a real person.) Balancing Antonino in the novel is Claire’s older sister Cécile, who fights for women’s rights and tries desperately to maintain contact with her sibling after their conventional parents reject the younger girl’s artistic aspirations.

Lavorato handles the blend of art, politics, language, religion, and power deftly, illustrating that they are inextricably linked. Above all, this novel can be read for its excellent sense of place. Gifted at description, the author transports readers to vanished settings and makes them come alive.