Book Review

Guyana by Élise Turcotte

a powerful quebecois novel about grief

February 20th, 2022

It’s later (slightly) the same day as the previous post. I didn’t do anything about forgetting my father’s birthday, which I probably should have done, but, hey, that narrative ended for me a while ago. 

I think one of the reasons why I was so overwhelmingly aware of how shit those Murakami novellas were was because the next novel I read (which I read in a single day the day after I finished those Murakami novels, which – whenever that was – was a while ago) had exactly the same tone and intention but was, to be blunt, fucking phenomenal.

Guyana (originally published in French in 2011 and this 2014 Coach House Press edition was translated into English by Rhonda Mullins) is also about someone failing to deal with grief, is also about someone meandering around in the period of life between youth and middle age (it’s probably less depressing being in this window if you, like, have a house and a social life and a proper like family or something. Or god. Or a cult. Fuck, I’d l love to be in a cult, and I keep saying this to various people in casual conversation and everyone responds by telling me about the details of a particularly bad cult, without them realising that is what I want: I want to be controlled and manipulated and feel GLAD THAT ITS HAPPENING. In many ways I was in a cult in my twenties, I suppose. I’ll come back to this, have to go rn)


February 24th

Ok and now there’s a fucking massive war happening in Europe or something.

Guyana was fucking great. 

It’s about a recently widowed (and thus newly single) mother living in a working class suburb of Montreal. She is mostly without friends and family, and remains on bereavement leave, so does not have the demands and connections of working life to pull her from her spiralling thoughts. Her child is growing in their independence so is increasingly less reliant on her, and rather than try to deal with the overwhelming grief she feels for her lost love, she instead becomes obsessed with the death of a young Guyanese hairdresser and recent immigrant who worked at the neighbourhood hair salon that was also a less-than-subtle front for drug dealing.

There is lots here about social and class displacement, and though – the author is, as I am, white – I can’t speak with any certainty as to the efficacy or appropriateness of Turcotte’s depictions of racialised identities in working class Montreal, Guyana felt like it interrogated and pointed out the problematising nature of the protagonist’s focus on a young woman’s tragic and possibly suspicious death instead of the tragic (in a different way) and definitely not suspicious (i.e. cancer) death of her romantic partner.

The novel explores the emptiness of choosing to ignore the pain in one’s own life to instead focus on the more abstract pain of someone else’s… to turn a suicide into a staged suicide, to turn a younger person’s directionless relationship into an example of bleak coercive control, to essentially stalk a former colleague of a dead woman, and to aimlessly visit the local police station with such regularity that the police have to stage an intervention.

In the end, there is a connection between a historic childhood trauma and Guyana that justifies the name of the nation triggering such a response; there is, too, the whisper of a violent (though not abusive) secret shared between the protagonist and her dead lover, a violent secret that is now only hers… to know the past is a burden, to share it is a relief, but it is easier to find distractions than it is a place of safety, as we know, as we know, as we know.

It’s a beautiful, short, novel and I highly recommend it.

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