Suzanne Desrochers' debut novel, Bride of New France, began as an M.A. thesis project. Fascinated since childhood by the legendary filles du roi, the young Frenchwomen sent to Canada to produce a population for the new colony, the author set out to learn more. With a distinct lack of data, this was no easy task.
Transforming dry facts into a fictional story; creating characters that walk off the page from numbers and records is the aspect of the novel that intrigues me most about the form. And I suggest Desrochers does a fine job of creating an imaginary world and setting her characters in it. Furthermore, her writing is solid. She spins a good yarn; her use of language is fresh and beautiful without being overdone. To the author's credit, the novel reads easily without succumbing to the category of an easy read.
A brief but dramatic prologue introduces our protagonist, Laure Beauséjour, in crisis, and succinctly sets the social landscape of seventeenth-century Paris. The story then picks up a few years later. Laure is now at the Salpêtrière, a pivotal institution in the mass incarceration of the poor of Paris. Here we see Laure interact with peers and witness her reaction to the consequences of their dire circumstances.
There's a magical moment during the reading of a book when you bond with the protagonist. In Laure's case, I confess I struggled. We needn't, however, like a character for the writing to work. Desrochers seems to be aware of this when she comments in her historical notes, 'On some levels she is a selfish character, but how else in such circumstances, if not through wit and strength and even malice, could these women have survived and given birth to French North America?'
If Laure, due to her challenging situation responds in a cold or calculated manner, I suggest this is exacerbated by Desrochers use of the third person, present tense point-of-view. There is a trend in literary fiction to use this POV. It can be a refreshing change and I enjoy books written from this perspective. However, it can create disconnect; we're asked to believe that the story is happening in real-time when clearly it is not. Consequently, I feel this choice of POV contributed to my lack of empathy for the challenging character of Laure.
After the trials of an ocean crossing, Laure has little choice but to marry pink-faced Mathurin, whose teeth are as rotten as his words. And the small settlement he takes her to offers little comfort. The only solace she finds is through her forbidden friendship with the Savage, Deskaheh.
Desrochers presentation of the relationship between Laure and Deskaheh, although passionate, remains realistic. And this, I suggest, is the book's great strength: it doesn't succumb to cliché colonial pairings, nor is it predictable it in its outcome or conclusion. Furthermore, I feel Desroschers offers a respectful representation of the indigenous cultures that Laure encounters. Joseph Boyden, author of Three Day Road
and Through Black Spruce
, agrees, calling Bride of New France 'A gorgeous historical debut.' Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning Boyden is of Scottish, Irish and Métis descent and his novels offer an illuminating view of First Nations heritage and culture.
Finally, I wonder if Suzanne Desrochers plans a sequel to Bride of New France. There certainly appears to be opportunity. And she must have done something right, for I find myself thinking of these characters and speculating about what happens in the future; how their lives, and those of their descendents, unfold. I hope Ms Desrochers is mulling this over as well.
My final word: If you're looking for a thoughtful read; one that opens a window into a world we know little of'the founding mothers of New France and to some extent, their relationship with the First Nations people they encountered'you'll enjoy this novel. Although the writing cannot be faulted, it does keep you at arms' length. Bride of New France is not a 'feel good, I need to escape and be this character' kinda read. With that said, save it for when you feel like settling down with a book that puts flesh on the dry bones of history. In which case, you won't be disappointed.