A house “as close to the sea as a house can get before becoming a boat”; a house that appears on no map and therefore possesses no postal code; a house with no electricity or telephone and a front door that is opened with a gold key.
These are only a few of the attributes of the highly symbolic main setting of Pascale Quiviger’s The Breakwater House, a novel that explores the real and the imaginary, the objective and subjective, and the remembered and deliberately forgotten and sublimated.
The novel’s unnamed female narrator drops the reader into this liminal zone on the first page, declaring that, in her inner life, “this inside of the outside, I exist only as something intangible.” She has recently been torn, we learn, from her lifelong companion, an act of primal separation she cannot speak of directly. As a result, she seeks solace in her little house by the sea, with its luminescent garden, its frog pond, and its view of the water and the “vast horizon.”
How the narrator came into possession of this singular, isolated house is the first of many stories that will unravel over the course of the narrative. Searching for a house that would “swallow [her] up” and release her from the wreck of her former life, the grieving narrator stumbles upon a For Sale sign while on a seaside walk.
Deciding to investigate the house, she follows a steep dirt path down a cliff, where she meets the mysterious but comforting Madame Chantre, who agrees – almost immediately – to sell her the house. With the transaction accomplished, Madame Chantre vanishes, leaving all of her possessions behind.
So begins the narrator’s inner journey, as she severs all ties to her former life. Vivid dreams come and go, and she is visited by a mysterious presence named Odyssée in the middle of the night. Odyssée may be the ghost of a lost child or sibling or the imaginary embodiment of a loss of self, of innocence, or of the capacity to love. It isn’t until later that we find out for sure.
Quiviger builds a strong atmosphere imbued with loss and ghostly presence, revealing details of the narrator’s past life while allowing the story’s key mysteries to deepen. Has the narrator gone mad? Is she actually living in a real house by the sea? Is the house haunted?
Then, about 30 pages in, the novel takes an unexpected turn. The narrator decides to continue her self-exploration by committing her thoughts, impressions, and memories to a journal, the contents of which make up a large portion of the novel’s subsequent sections.
It’s a bold narrative move, one that may put off some readers. In the flip of a page, the novel abruptly becomes an extended and often whimsical narrative about two best friends – Claire and Lucie – growing up together in Paris. Claire lives with her single mother, who enthralls her with magical tales of the family’s history, while Lucie lives in upper-middle-class luxury with her emotionally stunted mother, who is trapped in a loveless marriage.
The tale of the two girls’ lives stretches across many years and eventually reveals the causes of the narrator’s exile, but the wildly different tones of the two narratives make for jarring reading. Quiviger all but abandons the narrative style of her powerful opening. In the chapters that follow, the novel’s original narrator occasionally interrupts Lucie and Claire’s story with short passages that do little to expand our understanding of her grieving process. It is only when the unnamed narrator returns to the forefront at the novel’s end that we truly feel the connection between the two stories.
Quiviger’s style veers from constrained and precise to such abstract and overblown sentences as, “It is the voyage of a tightrope walker across uncommon days” and “I am writing for the women I love…. They are present or absent in the same way, the way of water, of milk, of owls and clocks.” This is not the voice of a woman slow dancing with her own suppressed grief; it is the sound of an author indulging a fetish for poetic abstraction.
When moored to the concrete, Quiviger’s images are both evocative and surreal, as when she describes a sharp but colourful cactus leaf as “the kind that from a distance looks like a newly opened flower and from up close like a smile frozen in lacquer.” Even better is a scene between two old friends who meet for tea on Thursday afternoons: “To start, there is an exchange of minor courtesies. Then comes a shift to some minor gossip, public or private, providing the friends with the opportunity to be appalled in unison, to get their instruments in tune.”
The brittleness, humour, and insight of such imagery speaks more insistently to the wisdom of hard experience than does flowery poetry.