Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann
What if the city of Detroit, Michigan, founded by French explorer Antoine de la Mothe, sieur de Cadillac, in 1701, had never lost its French flavour? This is the premise behind Catherine Leroux’s novel, L’avenir (Éditions Alto 2020), which has now been translated into English as The Future (Biblioasis 2023). Leroux has rechristened Detroit as Fort Détroit and, in the French edition, even went so far as to create a distinct regional patois to underscore its linguistic heritage.
As the novel opens, all is not well. Fort Détroit has suffered urban collapse, with crumbling skyscrapers downtown standing empty, the city’s outlying areas hanging on with minimal services and infrastructure. There are police and fire departments, but they are thinly staffed and unreliable. Phones work most of the time, and there are grocery stores, though they are barely stocked. Vacant lots abound, where buildings have collapsed or been torn down. Coyotes roam the streets, and feral children inhabit a local park.
Given this bleakness, The Future would certainly seem to qualify as dystopian literature. When one sees the word “dystopian,” though, what inevitably first comes to mind are such works as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and George Orwell’s 1984, novels that envision a dark future world of political repression. In Leroux’s post-industrial world, however, something very different is going on.
Gloria, a woman in her sixties, has come to Fort Détroit for only one reason: to find her missing granddaughters, who disappeared the same day their mother, Gloria’s daughter Judith, was murdered. Gloria prays that they are still alive. She is living in her daughter’s house and has started to clean up the mess it is in, but not yet feeling ready to venture upstairs, as it was in the bathtub on the second floor where Judith was drowned.
Gloria gradually gets to know the city and some of its inhabitants, while trying to get information on her granddaughters. She supposes they might have joined the feral children in Rouge Park (an actual park in western Detroit) and decides to contact them.
At this point, the narrative takes a fascinating turn. The focus switches to those children in Rouge Park. The children are all runaways under the age of puberty and have names such as Rasca, Lego, Adidas, and Stutt. But this is nothing like Lord of the Flies. It’s not that everything is bliss for these children—far from it. There is hardship and loss, confusion and pain. Leroux immerses the reader in these children’s world as they experience it, living only in the present, with no awareness of the past, and, without adults around to explain or instruct, they interpret their environment with a mixture of speculation and awe. Trees and animals, wind and water speak to them in ways adults have forgotten.
There is a touch of magical realism to this, but this is childhood. We have all been there, and Leroux evokes that stage of life beautifully. Of course, we all inevitably leave the magical realm of childhood to enter adulthood, where social structures and expectations constrain and ultimately suppress those magical impulses. Leroux paints this transition as a rueful process but leaves the reader with the sense of hope that the adults in The Future have learned something.
A paean to the wisdom that childhood possesses and the promise that it holds.
The Future is published by Biblioaisis.