Métis Beach is parenthesized by the Vietnam War and the Iraq War, American wars that dramatically affect the life of our protagonist and narrator Romain Carrier, a successful Hollywood screenwriter who has returned to his home in Métis Beach, a village north of Quebec on the mouth of the St. Lawrence River before it opens into the Atlantic Ocean. When Roman was growing up, the French served the English as gardeners, repairmen, cooks, and maids, but were not social or economic equals and the language divide was widened by political and class divisions.
Romain is looking back on his life in preparation for writing his memoir, his defense and hopefully his salvation. In doing so, he centers each section on the people he loved and befriended and how they changed his life. He begins with Gail, an English-speaking young woman whose family enjoyed tremendous wealth and power. Her beauty attracted him and they were friends, despite her father’s disapproval. Gail seduces him one night and her father accuses Romain of rape, sending him fleeing to the United States, certain that he could never prevail against her father’s clout.
He seeks refuge with a summer visitor to Métis Beach, a woman named Dana who becomes the center of the next section of the book. She is a feminist who writes a manifesto that rivals Friedan’s Feminine Mystique. She takes Romain under her wing, providing him with an education and an urbane polish. He also meets Moise, a young man who becomes his life-long friend. Events transpire to send Romain west to California for the next parts of his life, first in San Francisco and then in Hollywood.
In each section, his life is changed and profoundly affected by his friends and the women he loves. In many ways, he is passive, his life lived in the wake of other people. His choices dictated by others. Even his greatest success, his television series satirizing the televangelists whose greed more than overwhelms their faith, he credits to his wife Ann, as much as to himself.
Métis Beach is an interesting and ambitious novel. By ambitious, I mean that the author crams all the culture wars into one book, the issue of Quebecois independence, feminism, civil rights, anti-war movements and patriotism, gay rights, religious hypocrisy, atheism, nationalism, and patriotism. I am sure that is not all. Add the questions of what friendship means, who and what make a family, and how small decisions have profound effects that ripple through decades and it all becomes a very heavy weight for one novel to carry.
As much as I agree with Romain Carrier’s worldview, the story became polemical, particularly at the end. Perhaps because the Iraq War is still ongoing, it is difficult for Bourbonnais to restrain herself, but she had this ambush with a right-wing talk show host that was just over the top. Bush and Cheney’s farrago of lies is still killing people, not only in Iraq, but now in Syria and Yeman and across the Middle East, so it is tempting to make people who supported that war completely and utterly evil, but it was too malicious and unrealistic. In each section of the book, there is someone who is just one-dimensionally awful, Gail’s father, Dana’s son, Ken in San Francisco, and then Melody and Sweeney in the final section, not to mention the murderer.
Nonetheless, the story is interesting. It captures the major divisions and themes of American life, from Vietnam to Reaganism to the culture wars and Iraq though from one perspective. In the end, though, while Romain will never understand his critics, he can step back and value what is most important, friends and family.
Métis Beach will be released on November 22nd. It was was originally released in French and was translated by Jacob Homel. I received an advance copy from the publisher through NetGalley.
- Métis Beach at Dundurn Press