In the prologue to Stéfanie Clermont’s debut novel – a multiple award winner in Quebec – she paints a portrait of an urban oasis. It is a spot in the Montreal neighbourhood of Hochelaga where old reservoirs inexplicably fill up with water, and where a group of twentysomethings gathers to swim and spend time with friends. It is also a place they stop visiting after one friend hangs himself there on an August afternoon. “There are barely any of these quiet places, places you can live and die in peace,” Clermont writes. “There are barely any left.”
Vincent, the character whose suicide is mentioned so bracingly in the book’s opening, doesn’t reappear until much later. From the prologue, Clermont moves to Montreal’s Jean-Talon Market on a summer’s day. Sabrina is working at a fruit stand there, paying the rent by selling glowing red berries she describes in reverential tones to yuppie customers she disdains. She is underemployed and unengaged; she dreams of being a writer but rarely succeeds at penning anything more extensive than existential to-do lists.
Sabrina is one of many characters in The Music Game, which was first published in French in 2017 and was featured on the French-language Canada Reads the following year. Together with Céline and Julie, Sabrina is one in a tight-knit trio of teens going to high school in Ottawa. The group splinters when she and Céline head to Montreal after graduating and Julie stays in Ottawa. Through chapters told from the perspectives of all three of these characters and a constellation of others, the broader story of a generation emerges. There are tense moments of domestic and sexual violence, scenes of binge drinking and afternoons spent at Emploi-Québec offices, and unsettling episodes of family dysfunction told from children’s perspectives. And there is the death of Vincent, which forces Sabrina to find a way to continue loving the light someone brought into her life even after his violent departure.
Clermont shifts between both characters and time periods, sharing vignettes from her characters’ childhoods, adolescence, and early adulthood in a non-chronological narrative. She asks a lot of her readers, changing perspective with nearly every chapter while also introducing new people and plotlines into the complicated social web that makes up the character map of the book.
But readers who keep up are rewarded with a richly created world that spans cities and years. Moving with confidence from suburban Ottawa in the early 2000s to a Montreal inhabited by grad students and underemployed creatives in the 2010s – even to a finely drawn squat in Oakland, California – Clermont layers precise details to immerse readers in these settings.
Each chapter and each story adds a layer of complexity to Clermont’s portrait of a generation of young adults seeking meaning and joy in a world that hasn’t always been kind. Despite the often dark subject matter, The Music Game is hopeful and optimistic, too: it is a portrait of people who have built community on their own terms.