Wait... what? I thought that... but... so is he...? Is she...? What the... okay, so... huh? I think I get it... wait... no... really? Really. And now... so... and then... Wow. Neat. – Jessica Lee, Goodreads reviewer
Jessica gave this book 5 stars by the way and hers is by far the most concise and accurate review of this book you are likely ever to read. It says in thirty-two words what I’m going to try to express in three thousand.
There are some books and films that are hard to review without giving away major spoilers. Just think about the original Planet of the Apes or The Sixth Sense. The fun is in the twist even if you manage to work it out beforehand because you want to see if you were right. The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches is like that only worse because there are several twists, the first one on page 50 of a 138 page book and so I’m going to focus on the first 49 pages of this book as if I’d never read the rest which means that some of the things I’m going to tell you will be wrong but when you read the book you won’t know they’re wrong. Once the first of these wrong perceptions is kicked into touch on page 50 you’ll start to question some of the other things you thought you had straight in your head because the fact is that very little will be clear at that point; the two biggies you’ll have to wait until pages 113 and 114 to discover and then there’s the one I really didn’t see coming on page 118 and there are lots of little, tiny revelations along the way. At the end things will be as clear as they’re going to get; just not crystal clear. Nothing, no matter how many times you read this book, is ever going to be crystal clear. And that’s fine. Remember the thing you glimpsed out of the corner of your eye, the thing you didn’t quite see right and then it was gone – well this book is where it lives.
Two brothers live with their distant, domineering and violent father on a large isolated estate "beyond the pine grove". They are forbidden any contact with the outside world. There is no television or even a radio. Even music is a rarity. Their only toy is a frog which they captured and feed with dead flies although they’re really too old for toys. They see no grownups apart from their father and five neighbours who appear seasonally generally meeting with the father away from the house so they are only ever seen at a distance with one exception, a beggar who the father admits to the house and feeds in front of his children:
Judging by the solicitude my father showed him, he must have been an important somebody with access to sluts and blessed virgins ... as well as miracles up his sleeves, besides that he was mute, he expressed himself through throat sounds, the way dogs do. He also had only one leg, stuck in the very middle like a fool’s bauble, and he hopped along this earth like a magpie, propelled by his cane.
Odd way of putting things. Yes? Having had no formal education the two children have interpreted the world in which they find themselves as best they can cobbling together facts from the variegated books in the library: biblical texts, philosophy (Spinoza is mentioned several times), tales of chivalry and other classics. It is perhaps a little far-fetched in that some basic concepts such as gender pronouns are unknown to them but best not to overthink that because the author simply doesn’t provide us with a road map showing how things ended up the way they are. Just as they suddenly find themselves alone and having to cope with things for the first time we suddenly find ourselves struggling to cope (but in a different sense) alongside them.
A few facts are known: their father, now a wealthy man, a mine owner, was a priest at a young age and no doubt this is where his skewed ideas of love and discipline originate; not only does he give his children “whacks” on a regular basis – those “whacks” ranging from smacks and slaps to extended beatings – he also requires his children to serve as his own flagellator.
The book was written in French, Canadian French, Québécois specifically, and so you would expect there to be something lost in the translation but that’s not what I’m talking about when I refer to the clarity of the text. Its problem is that it’s written in a kind of idioglossia, twin speak in layman’s terms, although the siblings in question here are not twins. Unlike more typical cases however rather than invent their own words what they have done is take words out of the dictionary and redefine them. Take the word ‘dictionary’, for example, in this novel all books are dictionaries. All women are either ‘sluts’ or ‘blessed virgins’, breasts are called ‘inflations,’ male private parts are referred to as ‘attributions,’ distances are measured in ‘legs’, time is counted in ‘moons’ and the house in which they live is referred to as ‘our earthly abode.’ There is no glossary and so I’m not sure what ‘stoppits’ are but I made a guess and modified it as the book progressed and I had more contexts to play with. ‘Whacks’ of course has become the generic term for all kinds of corporal punishment.
Clearly the father is a very disturbed individual so much so that eventually he commits suicide. This is how the book opens:
We had to take the universe in hand, my brother and I, for one morning just before dawn papa gave up the ghost without a by-your-leave. His mortal remains strained from an anguish of which only the bark remained, his decrees so suddenly turned to dust — everything was lying in state in the bedroom upstairs from which just the day before papa had controlled everything. We needed orders, my brother and I, so as not to crumble into little pieces, they were our mortar. Without papa we didn’t know how to do anything. On our own we could scarcely hesitate, exist, fear, suffer.
Actually, lying in state isn’t the proper term, if such a thing exists. My brother was the first one up and it was he who certified the event for, as the secretarious that day, I was entitled to take my time getting out of my grassy bed after a night beneath the stars, and no sooner had I taken my seat at the table in front of the book of spells than down the stairs came kid brother. It had been agreed that we were to knock before entering father’s bedroom and that, after knocking, we were to wait till father authorized us to enter, as we were forbidden to surprise him during his exercises.
“I knocked on the door,” said brother, “and father didn’t answer. I waited until ... until. . . .” From his fob pocket brother took a watch that had lost its hands in days of yore. “. . . until right away, that’s it, until exactly right away, and there was still no sign of him.”
He kept staring at his blank-faced watch as if he didn’t dare look at anything else and I could see fear, fear and astonishment, rising in his face like water in a wineskin. As for me, I had just inscribed the date at the top of the page, the ink was still wet, and I said:
“That’s very troubling. But let’s consult the scroll and then we’ll see.”
We scrutinized the twelve articles of the good housekeeping code of behaviour, it’s a very pretty document that goes back centuries or more and it has big initial letters and illuminations if I only knew what that means, but of articles that suggested a relationship, even a remote one, with our situation saw I none. I returned the scroll to its dusty box and the box to its cupboard and I said to my brother:
“Go inside! Open the door and go inside! It’s possible that father is defunct. But it’s also possible that it’s only a stoppit.”
A long silence. We could hear nothing but the creaking of wood in the walls, because in the kitchen of our earthly abode the wood in the walls is always creaking. Brother shrugged his shoulders and shook his big head.
“What does it all mean? I don’t understand it at all.” Then he wagged his finger at me ominously: “You listen carefully now. I’ll go up but I warn you, if papa is defunct . . . do you understand? If papa is defunct . . .” He went no further. He turned his face away like a dog when it gives up.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “We’ll face the music, you know.”
Their father is defunct. That would be dead to you and me. There is no great show of emotion, no grief or elation, simply a discussion of practical details, how to get the corpse downstairs and disposed of. It is agreed that the elder of the two venture to the nearest village to acquire a "grave box". They find some coins:
The pine suit was a joke from father, who didn’t churn them out by the myriad but used them in the stories he would sometimes relate to us about those who had died during the days of his youth when he was a fine-looking lad. My brother didn’t know any better than I did whether we had enough cents, because father never took us with him when he went to the village with horse to buy provisions. He always came back fished off. We didn’t like that, he’d distribute whacks.
“He should have taught us the value of money,” said my brother.
“These are cents,” I retorted. “Our cents must have the same value as those of the villagers.”
I neglected to mention it, but of the two of us I’m the more intelligent. My arguments strike like cudgel blows. If my brother were writing these lines, the poverty of thinking would leap to your face and no one would understand a word.
“But we may need a lot more. When papa left he always took along a pouch packed with cents. He had a lot and I think he used to go somewhere now and then to stock up.”
“Where is that pouch?” I asked.
But my brother kept repeating: “He should have taught us the value of money.” On those few occasions when he’s visited by an idea, it doesn’t leave his bonnet easily.
I can imagine quite a few people will have never made it past the first few pages. And that might be just as well because there is a fascinating, grotesque and upsetting story here that is uncomfortable reading but once you’re roped in you’re roped in and you will want to see it through to its natural – or indeed unnatural – conclusion. In the hands of a different writer this would be a horror novel and there are classic gothic elements throughout the book. One motif in particular has appeared in several films and even a Sherlock Holmes story if memory serves right. The bottom line is that this could be turned into a B-movie script very easily if you only told the story and ignored the fact it was written by a philosophy philosopher.
Kaspar Hauser was a German youth who, in the early 1800s, claimed to have grown up in the total isolation of a darkened cell. Hauser's claims, and his subsequent death by stabbing, sparked much debate and controversy. I mention this because when I began reading this story (and realising what I was reading) the first thing I thought of was Kaspar Hauser. With others it was Virginia Andrews’ maudlin, gothic Flowers in the Attic. Or even Gormenghast. The names Italo Calvino and Samuel Beckett (the obsession with decay and the playful and inventive use of language) also crop up in reviews. All of which are valid comparisons, equally helpful and misleading at the same time. In many respects the book this has the most in common with is Lord of the Flies which I’m surprised no one mentioned. Yes, there has been an adult around but one who has deliberately withheld his direction allowing the children – and indeed the estate – to run wild. Everything is in a state of decay. The animals are starving, the building crumbling, the books rotting. The children see all of this as natural. It’s neither good nor bad, simply the way of their world.
The greatest delight in this book though has to be the wordplay. It must have been a nightmare to translate and keep all the nuances. Because their language has grown out of books, and very old books, there is an old-world cadence to much of the writing. Some of the expressions are archaic like houpland (an outer garment worn circa 1356-1450) or brackmard (a horseman's sword, circa 15th century). Sometime the narrator notices his mistake and corrects himself over a few paragraphs: ‘muskrat’ becomes ‘musket’ becomes ‘rifle’ but not always. The plot is actually quite thin but this is not a book you read for the story. If it were then people wouldn’t be returning to it two and three times.
I think one of the most relevant questions this book asks, which was put into words by Amazon reviewer, Jean Frost, is: Does the use of language define our ability to experience life? She doesn’t try to answer it and I’m not going to either. One might imagine that the children discover the truth when they're forced to come into contact with the outside world but that really isn’t the case. They already have a grasp of the truth but they define it and explain it in ways that makes it sound as if they don’t. The children know when they discover their father’s corpse that it needs to be disposed of, buried or burnt. What they don't grasp is the need for a ceremony which is why when the elder brother reaches the village he ends up wandering into a church while a funeral service is underway:
And let me tell you, woe unto him by whom the offence cometh, that’s the truth. I made my way up the long aisle with horse. The naked coffin was directly ahead of us. The priest was limply waving a censer, you don’t teach an old dog, and his eyes were half-closed and he was muttering and he looked to be thinking extremely hard about something painful, we made a conspicuous entrance, horse and I. I was holding my cents bag shoulder-high at arm’s length and I showed it to the people sitting on the benches as I walked sadly, repeating, if you please, give me a coffin, and I was a pitiful sight to behold.
Needless to say he and Horse are thrown out by the mourners but soon afterwards the priest and an officer approach him realising who he might be and hoping to be of some assistance. It’s shortly thereafter that we get our first big revelation. Then things begin to get interesting.
If the book has one weakness it’s that for all the answers you’ll get to the many questions you’ll find yourself asking as you progress through the book – like what the hell the Fair Punishment that lives in the vault might be – it doesn’t answer the big question: why? The kids don’t know why. The father’s dead and even if he wasn’t I doubt he would be able or willing to explain himself. Even if the beggar knows something it seems unlikely anyone will get anything out of him. So we’re never going to know but we can guess. It’s what the people from the village have to do. It’s what we have to do. And there’s a comfort to be had in guessing. It leaves open the possibility that the truth might not be as terrible as you imagine it to be. But it probably is.
Gaétan Soucy was born into a large family in the working-class district of Hochelaga in Montreal, Quebec, in 1958. Soucy studied physics at Université de Montréal, completed a Master's degree in philosophy, and studied Japanese language and literature at McGill University. His first novel, L'Immaculée Conception (published in translation as The Immaculate Conception), appeared in 1994. In 1997, he wrote L'acquittement (Atonement) for which he won le Grand Prix du livre de Montréal the following year. La petite fille qui aimait trop les allumettes (The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches), followed in 1998. It was translated into 18 languages, earning outstanding accolades and critical acclaim in both Québec and France. It won le Prix Ringuet and le Prix Grand Public de La Presse, as well as le Grand Prix du roman de l'Académie des Lettres québécoises. Making up, according to the author, a "trilogie du pardon," and written in a style that encompasses various voices, Soucy's first three novels portray characters whose inner tragedies are rooted in existential questions about death, mourning, sin, guilt, the mysteries of sexuality and the obsessive power of memory. Soucy's 2002 Music-Hall (published in English translation as Vaudeville) won numerous international awards, including le prix France-Québec in 2003, as well as a Governor General's nomination. This work, acclaimed worldwide, was translated into more than a dozen languages.
He currently teaches philosophy at Collège Édouard-Montpetit.
A native of Saskatchewan, Sheila Fischman is one of Canada’s top literary translators and specialises in the translation of works of contemporary Quebec literature. Fischman has translated nearly 150 Quebec novels. Since 1987 she has received numerous nominations for the Governor General's Award for Translation, winning the award in 1998; she has twice won the Canada Council Prize for Translation (in 1974 and 1984) and has twice won the Félix-Antoine Savard Award offered by the Translation Center, Columbia University (in 1989 and 1990). Her translation of Pascale Quiviger's The Perfect Circle was one of the finalists for the 2006 Scotiabank Giller Prize and her translation of Am I Disturbing You by Anne Hébert was a finalist for the same prize in 2000.
You can listen to an interview with her here.