Sunday, December 09, 2007

Take this with a grain of salt

trans. by David Homel and Fred Reed
Vancouver : Talonbooks, 2007.

This is the third book by Martine Desjardins that I've read this year, and will be the last until she writes another. It's amazing that you can read a book so much faster than an author writes one. And in this case I'll be tapping my foot impatiently until another book is written, and then translated.

This book, like her others, is fairly short. It is set around 1791, and tells us the story of Lily McEvoy, who lives alone in a rackety old mansion in rural Quebec. Her father, a wealthy salt mine owner, and mother, who was rumored to be a water nymph, have died. Lily has engaged a master stonecarver to work in her inherited salt mine for over ten years, to carve out a funereal chamber in which will lie her mummified parents. Lily herself has been eating and sniffing powdered salt, convinced it holds magical properties, but as the maids say to one another, "She is drying out from the inside. Like a bone gnawed to the marrow, like a green birch consumed by fire. She doesn't drink enough and she salts everything...The salt she's eaten is withering her skin. Already it has shrivelled her heart. "

As the book opens, Lily has decided that after ten years, Master Anselm the stone carver needs to be paid. She sets the house into an uproar by telling the servants that there will be a guest to supper. Lily has not had anyone inside the house since her parents died, so this is a major undertaking for the maids. It also upsets Titus, a servant of the house who grew up alongside Lily and was betrayed by her in his youth. Desjardins' gothic imagination is in full flight here, as in her first novel, featuring mummified bodies, clandestine births, jealous violence, musty old houses, and family secrets. The major symbol of the book is salt itself, its many properties elucidated by Lily or by others such as the local Bishop, who introduces Lily to the delights of salt-sniffing. Salt's preservative and seasoning abilities are important, but so is its blighting effect on growth. Lily's focus on her past, her looking back, has biblical overtones; she is like Lot's wife who for looking back at Sodom and Gomorrah was turned into a pillar of salt. It's Lily's fixation on grudges held for years which is drying up any chance of a future. The story also touches on Quebec's history, faintly, mentioning the Plains of Abraham and various tensions which result, mentioning also Lily's Irish family's part in the battles to defeat the French in Quebec.
Desjardins used crystal and ice as the predominant image in her first book, Fairy Ring, then gold in All that Glitters, and now salt. I can only wait to discover what she will fasten upon for her next book. She's an original voice, very clever and precise, and her novels are challenging but ultimately rewarding.


  1. Have you read Mark Kuralnsky's Salt? They might be interesting books to read in tandem.

  2. The gothic element in Martine Desjardins's stories seem like something I would like. The way you described the salt motif, it's really intriguing.

    I have to check if the books are available for in Asia though. Thanks for the recommendation.

    I second the recommendation on "Salt" -- but more for its relevance on the social history of the common salt.

  3. I'd like to read Kurlansky's "Salt". I'd forgotten about it, thanks for reminding me. It would make an interesting adjunct to this novel.


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