Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
If literary fiction should be primarily interpretative, with its core purpose to help the readers understand the world around them, then The Daughter's Story by debut novelist Murielle Cyr is a brilliant example of this genre. Driven by a well-executed plot with multiple points of view, the story covers four generations of French and Irish working-class families in Quebec, starting with the conscription crisis in 1917 and ending with the October crisis in 1970. The injustice inflicted upon the Francophone population is hardly an uncommon theme in Quebec fiction, but it is exceptionally so for a novel written originally in English. In this regard, Cyr is breaking new ground, and perhaps not completely to the comfort of some. Simple but fluid prose, strong female characters, mastery of timelines and backstories, and tempered and historically accurate treatment of nationalist grievances make The Daughter's Story a joy to read.
The story revolves around the relationship between two women, Nadine and her daughter Lisette. In 1950, Nadine, sixteen years old, is sent to a maternity home run by nuns to await the birth of her child. When the child, a girl, is born, the nuns whisk her off to an adoptive family while Nadine is still sedated. Nadine had never consented to give up her daughter but as an unwed minor, she was powerless to protest. It is only years later she discovers her uncle had signed the consent form. Bitter over the forced separation from her baby, Nadine leaves the maternity home and breaks off all ties with her family for twenty years. That is until the daughter, Lisette, comes back into her life. Now twenty, Lisette is eight months pregnant and in a dubious relationship with Serge, the father of her unborn child. Serge is deeply involved with the FLQ and believes he is facing imminent arrest under the War Measures Act. He obliges Lisette to move out of the apartment he shares with two other FLQ militants, arguing that it is for her safety, and he helps her track down her biological mother. Reluctantly, Lisette accepts living with Nadine temporarily despite her belief that Nadine had callously abandoned her at birth. Serge also has an alternative motive for bringing the mother and daughter together. He has discovered that Nadine has an unclaimed inheritance that he hopes she will share with Lisette who in turn will hand over most of it to fund the FLQ.
Guilt, caution, past deceptions, gentle re-discovery of mother-daughter bonds pervade the story. Although there is a degree of unintentional predictability concerning who Lisette's father was, for the most the novel reveals the relationships between the two main characters and the other family members quite seamlessly.
The novel is written from a distinctly feminist perspective, but it is not tear-the-patriarchy-down fiction. True, the women in the story are all portrayed as inherently good and victims of society, but the depiction of the men is not unidimensional or gratuitously critical. They range from a saintly lumberjack grandfather to good persons damaged by war, alcohol and jealousy to an outright racist predator. And then there is Serge, Lisette's boyfriend. Many readers will feel ambivalence toward the young man's motivations, some may understand how his youthful passion to defend his cause clouds his judgement, and others will simply condemn him for his neglect of Lisette. Like most flawed characters, Serge holds the readers' attention until the end.
A lot of very strong writing has gone into this novel, but it is not flawless. There are a few tropes in the story and more than a few clichés in the writing. These are minor points in what is otherwise a compelling narrative.
The Daughter's Story is published by Montreal publisher Baraka Books. This is the third publication by Baraka Books that I have reviewed in the last year. Earlier, I reviewed Fog by Rana Bose and A Beckoning War by Matthew Murphy. All three books are a testimony to the strides that this small Montreal press has made in offering readers not only entertaining but socially conscious fiction. Baraka Books is a press to watch.