Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
Translations of French novels by Quebec authors don’t always hit the mark in English Canada. The Woman in Valencia does. Written in the present tense, the English translation by Ann Marie Boulanger flows harmoniously through the points of view of Claire Halde, the protagonist, and her daughter Laure. The novel's strength lies not in its complexity or deep insights into the human condition, but in the melodic way the author takes her readers from grief-ridden obsession to a tragic yet deeply sensual outcome.
Claire Halde is a well-to-do mother of two on vacation with her family in Valencia, Spain. Her husband, Jean, whom we learn very little about in the novel seems alright enough at the beginning of the novel, but as Claire becomes obsessed with the death of another woman, she excises him from her existence. The other woman, a clearly distraught and dishevelled blonde, approaches Claire at the hotel’s rooftop pool and asks her to watch her bag. Before Claire can refuse, the blonde heads off to the washroom only to emerge minutes later to walk off the rooftop to her death. The incident triggers guilt in Claire. Why didn’t she intervene to stop the woman from plunging to her death? Why didn’t she feel more compassion for the woman who was clearly in need of emotional support? Why has she kept the bag left by the woman? The sudden end to the stranger’s existence invades Claire’s consciousness, displacing her care for her family. When her husband, Jean, bluntly encourages her to put the incident aside, the gulf between them begins.
One failing in the novel is the belabouring of Claire’s obsession with the woman’s death. This can put some readers off. Fortunately, once the author seems to have exhausted the theme of prolonged grief, the plot picks up again. Now four years separated from Jean, Claire returns to Spain, carrying the woman’s bag with her. The contents of the bag have told Claire little about the woman, but there is a sense that the return to Valencia might tell her more, perhaps put an end to her obsession. She stays at the same hotel in Valencia: a return to the scene of the tragedy. There, she begins her metamorphosis. She dyes her hair blonde, assumes a Russian name and seeks out a place to stay for free through the couchsurfing.com website. In sorts, it is a return to her youth, or perhaps a return to the imagined youth of the woman in Valencia. To avoid spoilers, I won’t go into details about the final chapters of the novel, other than to say that they reflect realistically what many traumatized people do in mid-life: the distancing from reality, a last grasp at adventure, falling into the arms of a stranger and then resignation to an imagined fate.
Perreault inserts brilliantly in the final chapters the point of view of Claire’s now adult daughter, Laure. These reveal enough to surmise what might have become of her mother, but many questions remain unanswered. Laure has become a runner like Claire and decides to do her first marathon in Valencia as an act to honour her mother. The two women's stays in Valencia are told in alternating chapters. In near-perfect synchronization, both mother and daughter finish their runs: Claire’s last metaphorical race and Laure’s first real one. The end station has been reached—the generational baton passes on.
Some readers might find The Woman in Valencia little more than a study in writing grief, obsession, disillusionment and resignation—all too often the ingredients of dangerous depression. But it rings authentic. These emotions, which many of us have known in life, make the novel and characters very accessible and draw us into the story, if only for a brief time. Perreault certainly has demonstrated an exceptional talent for this genre of fiction-writing, and her translator, Boulanger, impeccable work in rendering the novel into English. Both are to be congratulated for this. However, I finished the story, wondering if Perreault would go on to draw on her talents to write a truly substantive novel, one which would explore a greater range of human emotions and situations. In some ways, The Woman in Valencia comes over as just a teaser, a prologue for something of greater merit. If and when Perreault picks up the pen to write a new novel, I will eagerly read it. For the time being, I will nurture the tender strokes of unhappiness, the shadowy outcomes and the enduring characters of the women in her first novel.
The Woman in Valencia is published by QC Fiction, an imprint of Baraka Books.