Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
Published in French as Bestiaire in 2008 and first translated into English in 2016, the second edition of Life in the Court of Matane is seeing a second (or perhaps third) life. Only five pages in, I realized I was reading quite a remarkable book, one that drew me back to the nostalgia of my university days in Quebec City when many of my classmates hailed from the small towns in the Gaspésie. The book’s well-paced plot, caustic humour, and small doses of magical realism were a real treat.
In Éric Dupont’s work of auto-fiction, a six-year-old version of the author sits glued to the television watching the 1976 Olympic performance of Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci. Her perfect 10 on the uneven bars serves as a metaphor for Éric's own struggles and ambitions. It is the first of several metaphors that permeate the book.
Éric’s parents have separated and his father has re-coupled with a new woman, the first of several. The father, a provincial police officer, spends his time building a sea-going sailboat for a trip around the world, drinking beer, making love to his new wife/wives and once a year moving the family to a new address. Éric’s mother is excised from his world, and even speaking her name in the house is taboo. Eric, his sister, father and step-mother move from Rivière-du-Loup to the small town of Matane, several hundred miles away from the now banished mother.
For ten years, Éric lives under the patriarchal control of his philandering father, whom Éric styles Henry VIII. Naturally, his father’s new wife becomes Anne Boleyn and his mother, Catherine of Aragon. Anne Boleyn shows no love for her husband’s children, and they feel none for her. Éric ponders an escape from his father's court in Matane. He takes comfort in philosophical exchanges with mystical creatures: Laika, the Muscovite mutt stranded in Matane after returning to Earth in a Sputnik spacecraft, the Great Horned Owl who rules with absolute narcissism its forest realm, and a small cast of less memorable creatures.
Éric constantly thinks of his mother, Catherine of Aragon, living in exile in Rivière-du-Loup under the guise of Micheline Raymond, professional cook. Her visits with her children are limited to once a year by the edict of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. And so, for the rest of the year, Éric escapes into his dream world to avoid his dysfunctional home and bullying at school. But Éric’s tale is not a sad one, not a tragedy sinking deeper and deeper into morass. There is humour in his recounting of the local children’s replaying their parents’ federal-versus-sovereignist politics, homophobic slurs he mistakes for anti-intellectualism, and the exoticism of government-sponsored refugees from Laos.
The decade in Matane changes Éric. From a self-effacing boy, a tender soul, he learns to fight back and defeat the school bullies, overcomes the confines of his small-town existence and sets out to see the world. All the while, his father—the ageing king—kicks back amid empty beer bottles, watches his unfinished sailboat being hauled away to the scrapyard, and listens to the prattling of his newest girlfriend, the barbie-like Jane Seymour.
It is common to refer to works like this as coming-of-age novels. I am not sure that really fits here. The story is told not through a growing consciousness or loss of innocence. There is no defining moment in the story. Rather, the narrator’s man-child voice shapes the story as a prolonged prelude for great adventures to come: the anticipation of what follows the great escape.
Life in the Court of Matane is published the Quebec Fiction imprint of Baraka Books.