Review by Sherry Evans, Portsmouth Public Library
This is one of the sweetest most charming novels I have ever read. Every character is off center in little ways and quirky, big ways. The book could have begun with the words, Once upon a time there lived….
The Douglas Notebooks is labeled ‘a fable’ by the author, which alerts the reader to expect elements of magical realism, animal creatures (perhaps), and most importantly a message or moral. According the website http://www.wisegeek.com/, a fable is “…a form of literary fiction that often involves magical creatures and has a moral to the story it tells.” Further, “…the characters in these stories usually represent archetypes of powerful human emotions such as greed, foolishness, love and self-sacrifice.”
Douglas was born Romaine Brady to a wealthy industrialist and developer as the youngest of two children. Although the year is never stated, I believe the story begins in the 1950’s. Clearly, he was the less favored child, his parents having very little time or inclination to be with him. Upon turning eighteen he leaves the family, never to return again. He becomes a man of the land and a recluse, squatting in the woods on the outskirts of Riviere-aux-Oies (Quebec). His only sojourns into town are by canoe for supplies. His only joy is making music on the clarinet. The citizens of this quaint little town know of him but steer clear just as he steers clear of them. They call him Starling.
At around the same time, Elena Tavernier escapes the brutality of her father and a forced marriage to seek asylum in a convent. At 16, the motherly sisters send her to Madame Mercedes’ apothecary in Rivier-aux-Oies. In return for food and lodging Elena becomes an apprentice to Mercedes, studying hard to learn the trade. The townfolks come to say:
‘People sometimes came from far away to ask Mercedes for advice. In the end, they trusted her assistant as well. A rumour was already spreading beyond the immediate area: the witch in Riviere-aux-Oies had found a magician.’
Elena and Romaine/Douglas are destined to find each other. Both are comfortable on the outer realms of the real world, both lost children, solitary, protective and fragile. It is only a matter of time before these two meet and fall in love.
It is music of his clarinet that draws Elena to seek Romaine out. First she spies on him, and, alas finding her courage, approaches. Like two frightened animals, they circle, come close, back away, come close, until at last they speak. Elena decides that she must give Starling a first name (he has kept his given name, Romaine, a secret from her.)
‘Elena told him that she wanted to give him a name of the tallest, sturdiest, most spectacular of trees. And thus was born Douglas Starling.’
And soon a baby comes into the world – the lovely Rose. Our fable turns sad as one life is lost so that another can be born – Elena dies in childbirth. Douglas is inconsolable, turning back into the animal-like creature he was before meeting Elena. In his grief he leaves Rose at the doorstep of the good Doctor Leandre Patenaude, who had always harbored a secret love for Elena, and returns to the woods to mourn.
And then so much more happens – the ostracized Jewish teacher, Gabrielle Schmulewitz, moves in with the Doctor to help take care of Rose. They settle in to a ‘Rose-centered’ life, while the townsfolk of Riviere-aux-Oies buzz with outrage over the strange goings-on at the Doctor’s house. As Rose grows up, shopping malls are built; big highways run through the town; the forest is cut down. Tourists arrive. And then…Douglas leaves for good and forever.
Do you believe me? This is a fable, after all. And you might also ask yourself: What moral are we to take away from this fable? Or is just an exquisite French novel? I can tell you that the story is wrapped up nicely at the end, the author even including a ‘Cast of Credits’ to let us know what happened to the ancillary characters.
‘As soon as they were able to read and, more important, to calculate, the inhabitants of Riviere-aux-Oies seemed more anxious than others to change centuries’
The Douglas Notebooks was originally published in Canada in 2007 with the title ‘Les carnets de Douglas’, and won the 2008 Prix France-Quebec, the 2009 Prix Senghor du Premier Roman Francophone and the 2010 Prix du Club des Irresistibles. On the back of the books it says, ‘Delicately translated from the award-winning Les carnets de Douglas, The Douglas Notebooks will entrance even as it pulls the rug out from underneath.’