A sweeping tale for long winter nights
What do you get when you mix Charles Dickens with a helping of John Irving and a dash of Gabriel García Márquez? Well, you might get Songs for the Cold of Heart, an epic novel that tells the story of the Quebec-based Lamontagne family.
Written by Eric Dupont and translated by Peter McCambridge this book was a huge success in Quebec and was short-listed for the Giller prize. It spans the twentieth century taking the reader from the small town of Rivière-du-Loup in 1917 to the second-world-war battlefields of Germany and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki to modern day Berlin and Rome.
It is populated with a host of larger-than-life characters including strongman Louis “The Horse” Lamontagne, the scary looking Sister Mary of the Eucharist, motorcycle loving Solange “Suzuki” Bérubé, and Magdalena Berg, a survivor of the horrors of the second world war. Many of the characters are connected in surprising ways and there is no end of plot twists.
There is also no shortage of strange occurrences. In one instance, two arrows shot in Germany in 1942 disappear only to fall from the sky and kill two people in Quebec during a New Year’s Eve celebration. Another is a grandmother who dies yet goes on living in her son’s funeral parlour. This may sound strange but, trust me it works.
Puccini’s Tosca, plays a major role in the novel and Dupont, clearly an opera fan, uses the opera’s plot as a parallel to the drama that is occurring in the lives of his characters. They are all victims, to some degree, of love, betrayal or revenge.
In telling the story of the Lamontagne clan, Dupont documents the changes in twentieth century Quebec, primarily, the decline in the power of the Catholic Church. He manages to do this in a fashion that is at times funny and at others, disturbing.
Three of the novel’s main characters are Madeleine Lamontagne, the founder of a restaurant empire and her twin sons Gabriel and Michel. Madeleine has gone out of her way to cover-up the Lamontagne family history from the two boys and she has never told them the identity of their father.
In the second half of the book Gabriel has run off to Berlin to escape his overbearing mother and Michel, an opera singer, is in Rome starring in a movie version of, you guessed it, Tosca. There is a degree of antipathy between the two brothers that is explained in a series of letters between the two. This makes for some very interesting reading.
Through a sequence of chance encounters the real story behind the birth of Gabriel and Michel is revealed. At the same time, seemingly unrelated past events are turning out to have a tremendous impact on present lives and long hidden secrets are being revealed.
Dupont is a great storyteller, here’s hoping more of his novels are translated.
Songs for the Cold of Heart is published by Baraka Books, 2018.