Gaspésie is a land for the poor whose only wealth is the sea, then the sea dies. It’s a jumble of memories, a country which shuts its gob, and so doesn’t upset anyone, a land of misery with only the open sea as comfort. And so we hung on like men with nothing. Like fisherman that need to be consoled.***
“We Were the Salt of the Sea” , by Roxane Bouchard was my first book read this year for the Readers Prize at the Quai du Polar in Lyon this year. This a book about a remote fishing village in Quebec, at the mouth of the Saint Lawrence river. A land of fishermen before the sea fish, the cod and the Mackerel became rare, emprisoning the older villagers as the community ages and the younger generations tries to make the switch to tourism, as illustrated in the opening quote.
I will admit that the writing, trying to convey the local vernacular nearly lost me, the writing can only do half of the work and I don’t really have a reference in my mind for the musicality of this particular way of speaking allowing me to do my half of the work, I was further confused by the Hiiii before every sentence spoken by Cyrille, thinking it was his way of speaking ( but before every sentence), only learning at the end that he had trouble breathing. But with Vital always saying “saint-ciboire-de-câlisse?” With every sentence and Renaud beginning every sentence with “j’m’en vas vous dire rien qu’une affaire,” I confess I found this off putting.
But I persevered through the first thirty pages, and what chance, this is a marvellous book!
Set mostly in the modern day but with a couple of flashbacks to the seventies. As the book begins back then, a woman is giving birth alone on a yacht, a sailor on another ship in the dock hears screaming and comes aboard, helping to finish the birth.
Forward to the present day as a drowned dead body is caught early one morning:
“Hiiii…Hi youngster! So you came in the end! — Well yeah! — Well we’re not going straight away. — what do you mean? What’s up? — It’s Vital. Hiiii… You who likes that, fishing stories, well you’re gonna get one! — I don’t follow. — Seems he caught a someone drowned in his net…. Hiiii…. S’what he said on his VHF radio.”***
We soon learn that the dead body is Marie Garant, a woman in her sixties who’s home is here but spends her life sailing around the world and only coming back every few years for a short stay. Why was the detective from the City, Montréal, chosen to investigate in this village where everyone knows everyone and the coroner decides from the start that this must be an accident, she must have hit her head on the boom and fallen overboard. Who is the young woman Catherine Day that turned up around the time of the “accident” and is asking questions? Nearly all of the protagonists are of a similar age to Marie Garant. And why does she always go back to sea, as Cyrille tells Catherine:
Exoticism is a trap, doc, temporary entertainment for amateur photographers that make a scrapbook of their lives.***
The facts, or the memories of this story: another sea death when every fishing family has lost someone at sea, this is not an unusual event, are slowly, almost reluctantly distilled over 300 pages as Roxanne Bouchard slows the story down to the speed of the sea.
This is a clear possible winner.
First Published in French by vlb éditeur in 2022.
*** my translation
The quotes as read in French before translation
«La Gaspésie, c’est une terre de pauvres qui a juste la mer pour richesse, pis la mer se meurt. C’est un agrégat de souvenirs, un pays qui ferme sa gueule pis qui écœure personne, une contrée de misère que la beauté du large console. Pis on s’y accroche comme des hommes de rien. Comme des pêcheurs qui ont besoin d’être consolés.»
«Hiiii… Salut la p’tite! T’es venue, finalement! — Ben oui! — Mais on partira pas tout de suite. — Comment ça? Qu’est-ce qui se passe? — C’est Vital. Hiiii… Toi qui aimes ça, les histoires de pêche, tu vas en avoir toute une! — Je comprends pas. — Ça a l’air qu’y’a ramassé un noyé dans son filet… Hiiii… Y l’a dit dans sa radio marine.»
L’exotisme, c’est un leurre, doc, un divertissement temporaire pour les amateurs de photos qui font du scrapbooking avec leur vie.