What must it be like to read a Dennis Lehane detective novel when one is a Bostonian; or to read a Leonardo Padura thriller when one is Cuban? Or to follow Kurt Wallander through the Swedish countryside when one has lived there? Or to devour the Rebus series when one is a native Edinburger?
You see where I’m going with this. How does familiarity or even an intimate knowledge of the location of a mystery novel affect the reading experience? Does it intensify it, or does it somehow make it feel more mundane? Are more layers accessible to the reader who knows the setting of a story?
Well, you have a chance to test these hypotheses (if you are a Montreal West Islander or live in the Laurentians) while having fun reading playwright Ann Lambert’s cracking first novel, The Birds that Stay (2019).
The book is a bit of a strange bird itself. Though most definitely meeting the requirements of a thriller –it’s fast-paced and entangled with intrigue and menace—it’s also much more, which is made increasingly plainer as the reader works through the layers of remembrances of times past, and the dramas hidden there.
Despite the fact that Lambert’s novel moves back and forth between Beaconsfield and Sainte-Lucie-des-Laurentides, the characters who are not tied to evocations of childhood memories are rather few. In the here and now, we are introduced to Marie Russell, a middle-aged, divorced mother of two adult children, college teacher and writer of nature books; her mother Claire, who is edging ever closer to the end of her life, shedding memory and pieces of herself in ways that are painful to her and the daughter who is there to love her. There is Chief Inspector Roméo Leduc, a Gregory Peck look-alike and generally good boss who is jonesing for a nicotine fix throughout most of the novel and works out of St-Jerome. There is Ennis Jamieson, another handsome middle-aged man (he’s compared to Paul Newman), who has a foothold in both Marie’s past and present life. And finally, there is Anna Newman, a quiet, almost hermit-like resident of Ste-Lucie, who is murdered in the opening pages of the book, her body discovered by a heartbroken Louis Lachance, the 86 year-old handyman who has helped her to maintain her small home for years.
The Birds that Stay is a textured novel, intricately woven and satisfying on many fronts. From the almost impenetrable mystery of Anna Newman’s cruel murder, a single clue is left behind: it is a gold pendant with a chai symbol that has been torn from her neck and abandoned on the ground. Anna Newman has lived so discretely as an artist on the outskirts of the village, sketching, painting and caring for her dog and her small garden, that everyone, including Chief Inspector Leduc and his team, is baffled by her awful death.
And yet…despite this captivating beginning, Lambert quickly moves the focus of her novel to the West Island (she will soon bring us back to the murder and yummy Roméo), where Marie Russell, who is now a full-time resident of Sainte-Lucie, is in the process of preparing her mother for her move from her home on “Woodgrove Avenue” in Beaurepaire, to a nearby senior residence and care facility.
There are of course world-building, plot-related reasons for this shift to Beaconsfield-Beaurepaire, but I found that regardless of their importance to the novel’s complex intrigue, I was completely taken by these scenes that, I think, provide the emotional heartbeat of the novel.
What I found in the novel’s many returns to Marie’s childhood home was a careful, heartfelt and nostalgic recreation of life in the West Island in the 60’s and 70’s especially. Many of the novel’s most moving passages are found here, in the descriptions of the old neighbourhood and the unique “suburban” way of life of that period, when real estate development of such areas was booming all across North America.
Lambert paints a painstaking and vivid tableau of what resembles my own childhood too, in her descriptions of the (fictional!) Couchman’s house where grilled cheese sandwiches and Campbell’s tomato soup were served for lunch; of Bobby Gauthier’s violent home (the worst kept secret on the street); of those families, like the Daley’s, Mc Conaghy’s, Ebert’s, Kovak’s and Donergan’s who were often the first to live in the brand new homes, though many of them eventually disappeared down the 401; of playing doctor, cowboys and Indians, Nazis vs Americans [in my neighbourhood, it was Batman and Robin, soccer baseball and British bulldog and eventually, Star Trek, and riding all over the place on our bikes, for hours on end]…
But Lambert also evokes the family dramas unfolding behind closed doors (and windows): one neighbour’s alcoholism, and another’s addiction to Valium—“Mother’s little helper”—each family’s hidden world, each family’s secrets.
Contrary to most murder mysteries, the unraveling of The Birds that Stay is achieved as much by the happenstance of mistaken identity and outright stalking and vindictiveness than to methodical detection and investigative practices and processes, which is certainly one reason why the novel bounces along unpredictably and addictively. It may also explain why the story’s dénouement feels rather rushed.
Ann Lambert’s first novel works, with its direct, dynamic, unadorned prose. Her voice is distinctive: both pithy and opinionated and sometimes even downright cranky, and it fascinates me that, despite the fact that it’s written in the third person, the narrative voice feels so present in the storytelling.
The Birds that Stay most definitely does not offer the reader a gentle, touristy take on Quebec. The author makes some very strong choices in her first novel, and some, I admit, left me puzzled and bothered, really, all of which I would love to be able to discuss with her one day.
Perhaps on Tuesday, September 17th, 2019, when Ms Lambert comes to Pointe-Claire Library (Central), from 7:00 to 8:30, to talk about her latest literary success!