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July-August 2009

Review: Nicole Brossard’s latest novel throbs with linguistic menace

Terese SaplysWebsite

Fences in Breathing coverQuebec writer Nicole Brossard’s latest novel, Fences in Breathing (translated by Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood), confronts a subject favoured by a cadre of contemporary literary darlings, Roberto Bolaño, David Foster Wallace, and John Wray among them: namely, a profound distrust in the magic of fiction.

A woman of letters herself, Brossard’s Québécoise protagonist, Anne, labours to write a novel in a “foreign language.” Far from the familiar cadence of her mother tongue, Anne is exposed to the violent emotions that lie hidden beneath everyday language. In a glorious outpouring of hot, confusing words, Brossard, a two-time Governor General’s Award winner for poetry, writes of the profound anxieties and desires that Anne discovers in her linguistically alien world, a “realm … that is no longer euphoria but an endless dawn with its own heat.”

Anne’s futile attempts to write that world eventually shock her into silence: “I don’t dare write: I am frozen, fossilized in combat position.” She is paralyzed by a puzzle: how can fiction attempt to do what we, its creators and consumers, cannot—make sense of war, intimacy, the calamity of being born? Brossard leaves the question unanswered, though the answer not unhoped for.

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