Book Review

the governesses by anne serre

parkdale in the pandemic

The Governesses by Anne Serre is another publication from the always-exciting indie press Les Fugitives, who specialise in Francophone fiction newly translated into English. This book, first published as Les gouvernantes in 1992 and newly translated by Mark Hutchinson, is a slim novella that tells a hypersexual fairy tale-type narrative about three governesses living their best life somewhere in rural France. It’s enjoyable, but I did not read it in the best of circumstances.

I read The Governesses in its entirety whilst stood queuing to enter my local supermarket, the No Frills at King and Jameson in Toronto’s Parkdale, if anyone is a big enough Triumph of the Now to want to stalk me.

The queue looped down a path from the shop’s doorway, past the covered trolley storage, past some kind of weird fire escape from the building (or its neighbours’) basement, down to the car park at the rear, then all the way back again along the path’s 30 metre length, down to the big road at the front of the store, along the street to the corner of that block. This was where I joined the queue, but before I’d made my way in through the doors, the length had almost doubled.

I was in the queue (or the “line” as people say here, ignoring the word’s connotations with illicit pastimes) for about forty five minutes, if not longer (I wasn’t timing) and my only companion throughout was The Governesses.

Usually, when a visit to the supermarket becomes essential – I am talking about right now, in COVID lockdown times, when visiting a supermarket is no longer the simple, casual, task it once was – my lover and I go together, so we can carry more things. On this occasion, though, my lover went to buy the organic, human consumption-grade dog food that we feed Cubby, and I went to buy the extra basil, pistachios and grana padano that my casual pasta dish for the evening required.

the top Google Image result for “Grana Padano”

My time in the queue was mostly eventless. Most people here – it’s not sunbathing-mad(?) England – understand the way social distancing works and why, but there are, of course, the occasional people who do not. Usually, in this not-yet-gentrified-but-longterm-gentrifying part of Toronto, those people are visibly suffering from addiction or severe mental health issues. During the last few minutes of my time reading and waiting, a fracas began, which was being blithely ignored by the security guards who were regulating access into the supermarket. Two middle-aged alcoholics began a screaming, shouting match from different parts of the queue: one of them, wearing a mask, chastising the other for not doing so and for not standing the requisite two metres from the next person “in line”. This person, the more irresponsible though – initially – less aggressive one, was screaming “there is no virus, there is no virus” as I was ushered into the store.

I felt pretty uncomfortable and, to be honest, if this had happened when I’d been behind these people in the queue (or more than a few minutes from gaining egress), I would have headed home. It’s intense, and it’s all far from over.


The window which I sit next to 90% of the time when I’m typing these “pieces” overlooks Queen Street West, a busy street in this part of Toronto, and still home to many of the medical institutions that led to a disproportionate amount of chronic addicts living in this part of the city. A few doors down the road from my window is a food bank, which has recently painted big, multi-coloured hearts along the pavement to encourage social distancing from the people queuing for its services. What’s strange, though, is that these hearts are conspicuously three metres apart, not the standard two. Since the queue for the food bank has spread out, I now hear the conversations and arguments people have as they wait every morning, and though the content and the delivery is to be expected from people suffering from poverty in a large, “Western” city, it still serves to remind me how unprecarious is the level of precarity I’m experiencing.

I still do not know if or when I will receive pay-outs from the Canadian government: the online portal to apply does not launch until tomorrow (nb: I typed this on April 5th). I am theoretically eligible, but even if I end up denied money, I have (modest!) savings as well as an overdraft to draw on that will allow me to live – for at least a couple of months – without catastrophic loss.

It is hard to deny my privilege: I have (so far) spent my unemployed time this pandemic reading and writing and editing an anthology about excrement.

I have also been watching wonderful films and television (I received a free six-month subscription to MUBI which I am rinsing; I am also rewatching Nathan For You, which is PERFECT; and there’s new Westworld atm and it’s greaaaat) and though I am worried about the fact that if I am (for whatever reason) denied the free government COVID money, I will be unable to do anything other than eat for the next few months, then this is the worst that happens. I will survive, as long as I don’t buy any books.

My lover and I have already begun to bake our own bread… I have a stack of a hundred unread books… I have MUBI for free and I’ve already binged Tiger King. I am – in contrast to the people beneath my window – not in trouble.

Living twenty metres from a food bank is a good way to keep oneself conscious of ones relative place in the world: the factors that keep me from starvation and “true” homelessness (i.e. sleeping on the streets) are myriad and they are undeniable, as they likely are for majority of people reading this blog. I was able to rely on friends and family for support when I was “technically homeless” after a decade of terrible behaviour (I was briefly a paid-up member of the Liberal Democrats and did other things almost as bad), then I am obviously going to be in a better position having spent a few years being a very very very very very good manboy. I have-

Sorry, this is a weird one, and there’s nothing, I know I know I know, about The Governesses. It was good. Lots of sex, lots about class, lots about gender roles and how age and beauty and charm muddy those oft-firm barriers.

I’m gonna go and watch another old movie via MUBI, then I’ll have some wine. I’m not having a terrible time, yet.

This book was good. Sorry, Les Fugitives team, for the lack of anything insightful, but the pandemic is distracting.

BUY THE GOVERNESSES DIRECT FROM LES FUGITIVES is 10 years old! Celebrate by sharing this post – or others – with friends (if you have any), family (if you have any), lovers (which I presume you have because this website isn’t for children), or by donating to the site via the below link so that I can maybe take a day off work some time and enjoy being alive for a few hours.

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