Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
Under its Arachnide translation imprint, the House of Anansi is launching this spring Mirror Lake, a widely acclaimed work of fiction by Quebec’s award-winning novelist Andrée A. Michaud. They are pitching the novel as “a playfully genre-mixing psycho-thriller that explores our mysterious existence and the bottomless self.” Umm, not really, at least not for the English translation.
Robert Moreau begins his retirement on the shores of Mirror Lake, a seemingly peaceful lake in Maine. He hopes to leave behind his disillusionment with society and his generation, and embark on a new life in communion with nature. Before long, there are cracks in this Thoreau-like existence; the principal of which is his intrusive neighbour, Bob Winslow. Our protagonist soon learns that even a sledgeammer won’t keep his pestering neighbour at bay. But Winslow is only one of the annoying characters who invite themselves into Moreau’s new world.
When a very dead Joe Doe surfaces from the lake, Moreau must contend with the inquiries of the local constabulary: the Tim-Robbins-lookalike sheriff and his Indiana-Jones sidekick. With the tranquility of Mirror Lake now shattered, Moreau seeks distraction in the arms of a local call girl, Jeanne Picard—Lolita for her clients. Deciding that Jeanne Picard is more an Anita Ekberg with some aspects of a Gloria Swanson, Moreau renames his object of affection Anita Swanson. When a second person goes missing, and the sheriff calls on Moreau more frequently, our protagonist proportionally increases his visits to Anita to forget his worries.
Naturally, or perhaps unnaturally, Moreau decides to rescue Anita from her abusive boyfriend/pimp, except the abuse stems from a very different direction. As Moreau and Anita settle into a semblance of domesticity at Mirror Lake, Moreau discovers that Anita’s boyfriend is no other than his nemesis, the sheriff, and that the abuse originates from a certain Jacques. Together with Winslow, who has now wormed his way as a permanent feature into his life, Moreau attempts to hide Anita from the sheriff.
Enter Jacques Picard, Anita’s real abuser, distant relative and escaped convict. Picard coerces Moreau into procuring a gun for him by holding hostage Winslow and Moreau’s dog, Jeff. Winslow is expendable but not Moreau’s beloved Jeff, so our protagonist heads to a Bangor bar in search of another Jacques who is holding a gun and money for Picard. For a few laudable pages, Michaud treats her readers to a fairly well-written, humourous brush with Maine’s underworld before turning the novel into a metaphorical fantasy. Falling against a four-hundred-million-year-old rock, Moreau suffers a concussion, goes into a coma, and several months later wakes up in Winslow’s body. Our protagonist’s new challenge is to regain his own body, which the real Winslow has apparently taken over, although the latter adamantly denies this transmigration. The novel’s other characters carry on, but now with our protagonist forced to watch them and his own mirrored image through Winslow’s eyes.
First published in French in 2006, Mirror Lake is Andrée A. Michaud’s seventh novel. The original French text was widely acclaimed by critics and it won the Prix Ringuet, Quebec’s most prestigious award for fiction. It then went on to be adapted as a feature film. On a technical level, the English translation by J. C. Sutcliffe appears adequate, but the twisting and turning of the protagonist’s mind is at times labouriously rendered. While the intent is obviously to depict Moreau as a tortured, somewhat demented individual, the translation lacks the finesse to achieve this. Particularly irksome is the extensive use of Latin expressions, a reflection of Moreau’s education in a Quebec collège classique. Many of these expressions could have easily been changed by the translator to their more commonly used English equivalents, recognizing that Latin fell out of usage by North America's anglophone elite decades before it finally disappeared among educated Québécois.
Besides the translator’s possible lack of dexterity in adapting the novel to an anglophone North American audience, I found the novel fell quite short of a work of fiction that has earned so many accolades in its original edition. The plot is skeletal and could probably have been written in two or three pages. In the first half of the novel, the actions of the main characters are extremely repetitive and do very little to advance the story. One is left with the impression of unneeded words employed just to fill the pages. While the protagonist’s circular thinking is clearly intended to demonstrate a fragile state of mind, his obsessions with a four-hundred-million-year-old rock and whether Humpty-Dumpty is an egg or a potato are really overdone. The French original was applauded as a critique of contemporary society; the English translation does not convey this in any meaningful way. Of course, society has evolved since the novel was published in French in 2006 and North American anglophone society is not contemporary francophone Quebec society. Overall, this translation is hardly a work of significant literary merit. Instead, it comes over as a tedious crime novel slash psychological unthriller, which here and there is redeemed by strokes of humour.