Canoes is a slim volume of precise elegant writing, a slow-moving journey of thoughts and experiences that are connected by a series of women’s voices. This collection of eight short stories does not appear to have a solid, common theme, until we realise that they are all distinctive parts of the same exploration of what a voice is, especially when it’s transferred to another location, and translated into another language. That might seem quite vague and elusive: so let me be more specific. Maylis de Kerangal began writing these stories at the time of pandemic. Face masks altered faces and distorted sounds, hid some meanings and truths: voices became filtered, obstructed, veiled: their vibrations were changed. In these unclear situations, people had to guess, make their own interpretations. That in turn produces feelings of being unsettled, or even lost, while the big question remains: are we as human beings still able to connect?
Jessica Moore’s superb translation is a subtle balance between voices of author and translator, which creates space for the emotions. The longest story, “Mustang”, resonated with me especially strongly as it deals with the managing of huge change and adapting to new circumstances: a young French woman – unnamed – follows her husband Sam to Colorado when he decides to take up a research post at university there, but at the same time to take her to a new location where she might be able to cope with an earlier trauma. The unnamed narrator wishes she could adapt to the different American life as easily as Sam and her son have. Their natural sense of belonging shifts relationship as a whole. It’s not just about chatting to neighbours and making friends. She has so much space and time that she’s overwhelmed by potential choices. She gets lost in the vast American landscape which in the ‘90s, without GPS or internet forces her to face her limitations. As she navigates this unfamiliar territory she realises that her voice and how she uses it are evolving as well. Deep down you’re the only one who’s not doing anything there, my sister joked the other night on a three-minute transatlantic phone call that hit me like a shot of gin before triggering a kind of melancholy slump: I am not not doing anything, I’m adapting, I told her, as her laugh traversed the cosmos. Adapting takes time and effort.
De Kerangal examines other voice-related issues with fine sensitivity. A voice can be a tool, or an instrument, or a key. A daughter asks her father to erase her mother’s message from an answering machine. A woman reads a poem for two sisters who search for specific voices to record them. The author’s prose is full of very long sentences, a kind of stream of consciousness that pulls both characters and the reader into situations that are often overlooked. When someone’s voice changes, how often do we stop to figure out why? But here, de Kerangal’s choice of words makes us stop, think a little, and consider. Canoes must be read leisurely and enjoyed for its unhurried pace.
Reviewed by Ewa Sherman
by Maylis de Kerangal
Translated from the French by Jessica Moore
Published by MacLehose Press (2023)
December 2023 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.
Ewa Sherman is a writer, translator and critic. She studied Polish Literature and Language, and Law, and worked with the Polish media. She’s translated several books of sonnets written by her mother Krystyna Konecka from Polish to English.
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