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The Hollow Beast

by Christophe Bernard; Lazer Lederhendler (trans.)

l to r: Christophe Bernard; Lazer Lederhendler (Monique Dykstra)

Christophe Bernard’s epic debut novel opens with what under any other circumstances would sound like a tall tale.

In the last moments of the annual Gaspé diocese junior hockey tournament’s final game, the underdogs, a team called the Grisous from the fictional town of Saint-Lancelot-de-la-Frayère, are tied with the Crolions de Paspébiac, who always vanquish their opponents.

“It’s not just that they move fast and are made of rubber,” Bernard writes of the Crolions. “Nah. Over there, when you get pummelled by all your ten brothers at once, you roll around on the ground laughing and asking for more because that’s what you thrive on—beatings.”

In net for the underdogs is Honoré Bouge, an orphan whose nickname, Monti, is short for mon petit. Billy Joe Pictou, the Crolions star, is a hulking kid whose “slapshot was enough to pulverize your children’s shins.” Pictou takes a shot. Monti catches it in his teeth before he falls backwards over the goal line. Linesman Victor Bradley, a Paspyjack (as people from Paspébiac are known), makes the call to count the goal and the novel’s animating conflict is born.

At the heart of the novel’s action – and over the course of the book’s more than 600 pages there is a lot of action – is a declaration made by both Monti’s son Henri and his grandson Francois: “all Gaspésiens are liars.”

The tall tales, the fabled history of the town of Saint-Lancelot-de-la-Frayère, the epic pranks Monti pulls on Bradley over their decades-long grudge match, the technicolour beast Monti and Francois seem to hallucinate while constantly soused on the high-proof hooch called Yukon – the veracity of all of it is in doubt if this statement is to be believed. For although the identity of the omniscient narrator is never revealed, who but a Gaspésien could paint such an intricately detailed portrait of a place that it practically leaps off the page?

The Hollow Beast was first published in French in 2018, and the book received many accolades: it was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award and won the Quebec Booksellers’ Prize, among others. French-language reviewers celebrated Bernard’s ability to capture so precisely the language of the Gaspé Peninsula; Lazer Lederhendler’s English translation does a formidable job of sharing that region with a new audience.

The rivalry between Monti and Bradley – and between their descendants, as well as the intervening skirmishes with other families – is only one animating force of the novel. The other is the world of the Gaspé Peninsula itself. Expanding outward from Monti and Bradley is a constellation of characters whose own lives in the Gaspé are no less interesting. Every character, no matter how briefly they appear, is rendered three-dimensional with at least one finely detailed anecdote or scene.

Bernard weaves a multicoloured, shimmering tapestry of the Gaspé, using an expansive set of threads. What is the beast that Monti and his descendants seem doomed to be haunted by? What exactly happened to Monti in northern Ontario that resulted in a bottle of Yukon being delivered to him – and then to his descendants – every week?

The many threads aren’t necessarily gathered into a neatly finished selvage by the time the reader gets to the end of the book, but the journey they have been taken on is so immersive, so grounded in a place and the characters that inhabit it, that it hardly matters. The only thing one is really left wondering is where Bernard will decide to take us next.


Reviewer: Cassandra Drudi

Publisher: Biblioasis


Price: $28.95

Page Count: 624 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 978-1-77196-555-2

Released: April

Issue Date: May 2024

Categories: Fiction: Novels, Reviews