Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the Cardinal family, and left me wishing I could stay for more. With its elegiac prose and sensitively developed characters, the novel is an original, emotionally potent, and heartbreakingly real exploration of the forces that bind and break families.
In addition to Saucier’s nuanced portrayal of a unique family dynamic, the inventiveness of her various characters and settings kept me constantly intrigued. The Cardinals are a fierce and feral clan of twenty-one siblings who grew up together in Norco, a now desolate and poverty-stricken mining town in Quebec. Norco was built on the short-lived prosperity of a zinc mine discovered by their obsessive and elusive prospector father; in the original, instigating tragedy of the family, he would never see an ounce of the wealth that came from his discovery, an event that would spiral into the family’s demise. As a consequence of this underlying anger, the siblings grew up united in a war against anyone outside their exclusive, isolated family: for most of their childhoods, it was Cardinals against the rest of the world. They despised the outsiders that profited from the mine and ridiculed any sign of weakness within their own ranks. The Caboose, the youngest boy, romanticizes his family’s history more than anyone (but also knows the least of its secrets):
There are plenty of parts of our story that I can’t tell. People are too narrow-minded to accept such a lust for life. We don’t belong to the same species. We never wanted their lives, and I can see in their eyes that our defiance sends them scurrying back to their doghouses the second a particularly Cardinal episode comes up. Over the years, I have figured out which things are most remarkable, and I don’t pour it on any thicker. I stick close to what’s deemed acceptable.
With fire and dynamite as their weapons of choice, they were an intrepid, scrappy tribe of child bandits, terrorizing the town, mercilessly tough on each other but unconditionally united. The Neverland that Saucier creates as the Cardinal children’s domain is as interesting and imaginative as the rough-and-tumble camaraderie of the siblings themselves:
I was five, maybe six, and the town seemed to go on forever. Yet I simply had to stand on the sheet metal roof of the dynamite shed, which we would slide down winter and summer, and I could see the entire expanse of it. From the disused fire station that gleamed white in the sun (it was built just before the mine closed) to the flimsy hovels scattered along the forest’s edge, there were three large, square, grassy plots of land and, lost in the desolation, a few houses in ruins or well on their way. It was the same when you looked along the other axis: space, tall grass, grey asphalt roads full of potholes, a few forsaken buildings and, just about anywhere you looked, the mounds left by houses that had been transported elsewhere: the cement foundations, the sagging sheds, the body of a car that didn’t want to follow. And sometimes, lo and behold, a smart, tidy house cultivating flowers and hubris. Like the Potvins’, which had once been the city hall. Just two children. The son was going to college, the daughter to convent, and their mother played the organ at church. Rich people we cheerfully despised.
The novel actually takes place years later, though, once the “golden age” of the Cardinal children has passed, and their clan has grown up and all but dissolved. For the first time in years, the entire adult family is reunited, forcing them to come to terms with an event that has haunted them all for decades: their involvement with (and as we learn more, perhaps responsibility for) the mysterious disappearance of one of their own.
Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different sibling, consisting of introspective, intimate monologues and memories from several members of the family. The novel owes much of its suspense, mystery, and thought-provoking ambiguity to this multi-perspectival form. The fragments of the Cardinal family’s unusual past are pieced together through these accumulating shards of memory and knowledge: their story cannot be fully told by any one member, and the troubled past that poisons the family can only be resolved through bringing together the combination of secrets, big and small, that all of them keep. It is immensely satisfying how Saucier strategically unfurls the details of the Cardinal saga through the lenses of the different “generations” of its children; from the oldest child, Émilien with perhaps the most perspective, having had the full view of the family history, to the youngest, The Caboose, who, in his worshiping naïveté relishes the romanticized stories of the Cardinal children’s peak years. It is fascinating to see how the Cardinal children’s lives have diverged, and how they have each dealt with the aftermath of their former life together—they are scattered around the world, all living in drastically different ways. Each glimpse into these lives yields a depth and investment in the characters that is remarkable for the brief chapters they inhabit; I often found myself wishing that I could dive even deeper, linger a little longer, in each of their divergent worlds.
Saucier’s melancholy family mystery has a natural flow and an intimate, dream-like atmosphere that kept me reading, hypnotized, to the end. It was intriguing to read along as the Cardinals literally put together the pieces of a former life that often seems too surreal to be true. I loved how, on so many levels, this novel approached the simultaneous strength and weakness in the inescapability of family bonds; even living their separate adult lives, decades later, the Cardinals cannot avoid the pull that brings them all together to confront their once-shared lives. It is this same inescapability that leads to so many of the family’s tragedies, yet also some of the tender and vulnerable moments they share. Offered an opportunity by a wealthy family to get an education and participate in the “finer” parts of life, Angèle, (the sister who disappeared) was mercilessly teased and tormented by her siblings. Nicknamed “The Foster Child,” she was a misfit in her gentle nature, but she always returned to her siblings: “The keys to the world were handed to her with all the honors due to the first class. Why would she agree to leave that peaceful world for the den of the deranged, who started quarreling over the scraps of her soul as soon as she set foot in the house?” Her simple, perfect answer, and a summary of Saucier’s powerful message: “‘Family is an encounter with the deepest parts of your soul.’”
So, this year, for the first time ever, BookExpo America is sponsoring two panels highlighting forthcoming works of fiction: one featuring general fiction, the other focusing on crime and thrillers. (Naturally, I’m moderating the first one and Tom Roberge is doing the other.)
The one on general adult fiction will take place first on Thursday, May 28th, at 10:30am on the Eastside Stage. The Crime one will be on Friday, May 29th, at 10:30am on the Eastside Stage.
Any of you who happen to be attending BEA should definitely come check this out. As a pilot program, it’s very important that we have a decent number of people show up for the events, so that we can hopefully grow this more and more in the future.
To whet your interest, here’s a bit of a preview of the General Fiction panel (I’ll do crime separately), complete with booth numbers so that you can go snag galleys of the books that look most interesting to you:
BEA Selects Adult Fiction in Translation
Thursday, May 27th, 10:30am
Coach House Books (Booth 648) will present Guano by Louis Carmain, translated from the French by Rhonda Mullins.
Since this won’t be available for a while, I can’t find any information about this on Coach House’s site, but I was able to scrape this off of Google Translate:
This is a story of war and love. Now, as these two are often born of entertainment no – tense border, made smiles – to surprise us in the end to be all – dead, tears, surprises – there was virtually no grand departure thing.
Which . . . is intriguing . . . (Seriously though, Coach House does great work and I’m really glad they’ll be featured on this panel.)
Coffee House Press (Booth 642) will present Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney:
Highway is a late-in-life world traveller, yarn spinner, collector, and legendary auctioneer. His most precious possessions are the teeth of the ‘notorious infamous’ like Plato, Petrarch, and Virginia Woolf. Written in collaboration with the workers at a Jumex juice factory, Teeth is an elegant, witty, exhilarating romp through the industrial suburbs of Mexico City and Luiselli’s own literary influences.
(I actually just finished reading this and it’s wonderful.)
Graywolf Press (Booth 3064) will present A Woman Loved by Andreï Makine, translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan:
Catherine the Great’s life seems to have been made for the cinema—her rise to power, her reportedly countless love affairs and wild sexual escapades, the episodes of betrayal, revenge, and even murder—there’s no shortage of historical drama. But Oleg Erdmann, a young Russian filmmaker, seeks to discover and portray Catherine’s essential, emotional truth, her real life, beyond the rumors and facades. His first screenplay just barely makes it past the Soviet film board, and is assigned to a talented director, but the resulting film fails to avoid the usual clichés. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, as he struggles to find a place for himself in the new order, Oleg agrees to work with an old friend on a TV series that becomes a quick success—as well as increasingly lurid, a far cry from his original vision. He continues to seek the real Catherine elsewhere . . .
Makine is extremely well-known throughout the world (you may be familiar with Dreams of My Russian Summers, which enjoyed a great deal of success) and it’s great that he’s found a home at Graywolf for his new books.
Come out on Thursday morning to see Erin Kottke, Alana Wilcox, and Caroline Casey talk about all of these!
A Greater Music is the first in a line of steady and much-anticipated releases by Bae Suah from key indie presses (this one published by Open Letter). Building off of the interest of 2016 Best Translated Book Award longlist nominee. . .
The dislocation of individuals from the countries of their birth has long been a common theme in contemporary literature. These two short novels recently translated into English appear firmly rooted in this tradition of ex-pat literature, but their authors eschew. . .
In Melancholy, Hungarian author, critic, and art theorist László Földényi presents a panorama of more than two thousand years of Western historical and cultural perspectives on the human condition known as melancholia. In nine chapters, Földényi contrasts the hero worship. . .
Pascal Quignard’s __The Hatred of Music_ is the densest, most arcane, most complex book I’ve read in ages. It’s also a book that covers a topic so basic, so universal—almost primordial—that just about any reader will be perversely thrilled by. . .
In Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Flaubert attempted to highlight the ordinary, tired, and often crass nature of common expressions by italicising them within the text. When Charles, Emma Bovary’s mediocre husband, expresses himself in a manner akin to that of. . .
Eliot Weinberger takes big strides across literary history in his genuinely breathtaking short work, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, tracking translations of a short ancient Chinese poem from the publication of Ezra Pound’s Cathay in 1915 to Gary. . .
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .