This dreamlike novel spans five generations in the lives of a French-Canadian family of misfits.
This is a strange and beautiful first novel, first published in Canada in 2006, written by a French-Canadian in a high lyrical style more common in French literature than American, although it was composed in English. Sprawling from 1918 to 2006 and set in various Canadian provinces as well as New Jersey, Virginia and Louisiana, the novel spans generations of the men and women of the Hervé clan, who are marked from birth by their size, born alternately giants or runts, "enormous child then changeling."
The first protagonist is Jude, grandson of the patriarch Hervé Hervé, who emerges into the world with a tiny twin sister in his arms. She does not thrive, while Jude is trained by Hervé to become a powerful boxer.
After a severe injury, he leaves boxing, abducts his infant daughter, Isa, and changes his last name to White, to be "just another man" working as a farm laborer. At age 20, Isa accepts an elderly rich man's proposal of marriage as a business proposition: She would be the trophy wife on display with no sexual duties.
There is a dreamlike quality to the turns their lives take, less choice or fate than sleep-walking accident. After her husband's mysterious death, Isa takes up with Bart, a giant who had been traveling with the evangelizing Rev. Diamondstone. In a replay of Jude's life, Bart is left to raise his infant daughter after Isa's death.
Religion plays a part in everyone's life, though the relationship between human and divine is fraught. Deni Béchard evokes a god of chaos rather than nurture or forbearance. "When the sky burst with lightning and flooded the ditches, he [François, a runt descendant] thought, Here's God again, messing things up. Then he ran home, terrified that God would let fall something heavy, a well cover or a refrigerator." God is a trickster.
François, after making a precarious living as a "lab rat," testing new drugs, saves up enough money to start a small business. He takes up with Peggy, a hitchhiker he'd picked up, and they have a dreamy son named Harvey, who, as Peggy keeps telling him, is meant to be a holy man. News like that is bound to be confounding, and Harvey grows up rather mystified. Peggy leaves François and for a time she and Harvey "lived with his grandparents, great bellied and hipped things that hugged and patted him and gave him rock candy then felt they'd done their duty."
Later, he lives in an ashram with the new name of Sat Puja, before he becomes a Mexican laborer. (This does not make sense, but hey, if you've come this far , you no longer expect the usual character or plot scenario.)
The plot turns seem randomly chosen. This is a novel not of event nor even character but a sculpted artifact, built sentence by luminous, surprising sentence.
Brigitte Frase is a book critic in Minneapolis and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.