The perils of romantic preoccupation inform The Girl Before, the Girl After, the translation of Quebec poet and novelist Louis-Philippe Hébert’s 2012 novella, Celle d’avant et celle d’après. With its unconventional structure and evocative sexual scenes, the book uses both form and content to express one man’s lifelong obsession with a woman who captivated him in his teens
Though the events take place over the span of decades, we learn very few details about the novella’s unnamed protagonist, other than his two successive workplaces and the name of a restaurant he frequents. As a teen working at a Montreal boutique specializing in Mexican crafts, he becomes enraptured with the much younger wife of a university professor. Many years later, he is seduced by his boss, the manager of a bookstore, who bears a strong resemblance to “the girl before.” Most of his time is spent thinking about one woman or the other.
The Girl Before, the Girl After is primarily a book of mood and character rather than setting or story. Structurally, it takes the shape of a single paragraph that runs for nearly a hundred pages. This generates a particular sort of stream-of-consciousness effect, suggesting a daily existence that is unpunctuated and banal. The narrative is comprised, for the most part, of simple sentences, and many times even these are broken into two fragments. This is disorienting at first – evoking the scattershot thought processes of an obsessive personality – though eventually the rhythm of the prose develops a somewhat hypnotic effect.
The few times this spell is broken occur when Hébert describes a series of sexual encounters between the narrator and his manager, which escalate in terms of complexity and fetishistic aspects. Here, the descriptions are clear, direct, and engaging, and the prose features a momentum that is otherwise muted throughout the rest of the text. These vibrant interjections make you wish (for the sake of the reader) the character got laid more often.