Rebecca Peng Reviews Two New Books for EVENT 50/3

Rebecca Peng Reviews:

Virginia Pésémapéo Bordeleau, Trans. Susan Ouriou, The Lover, the Lake, Freehand Books, 2021

Nathan Niigan Noodin Adler, Ghost Lake, Kegedonce Press, 2020

A slim 163-page paperback, artist and author Virginia Pésémapéo Bordeleau’s The Lover, the Lake moves quickly and with confidence. Bordeleau charts the star-crossed romance of Wabougouni, an Anishinaabe healer and expectant mother, and Gabriel, a Métis trapper, against the backdrop of early Canadian colonization.

Initially published in French in 2013, the novel in Susan Ouriou’s English translation is direct and, at times, satisfyingly visceral. After overtaking a moose, Gabriel ‘slit the animal’s jugular vein, which pissed red onto the snow.’ Camping at night, he is overcome with awe for his surroundings, ‘a land whose volcanic-rock belly surfaced in outcroppings bearing fossilized crustaceans in their vein.’ Bordeleau’s sentences are particularly engaging when they draw upon the body, taking stock of its fleshy undersides, its scents, its proclivity to piss and spit and suck. This viscerality fuels her most interesting metaphors and a serviceable, direct approach to the explicitly erotic scenes for the novel. One’s mileage with regards to the latter will vary. The Lover, the Lake may not titillate, but nor does it embarrass; Bordeleau’s straightforward prose shrugs off stigma or shame.

It’s a dispensation essential to the novel’s self-proclaimed project. Upon its initial publication, The Lover, the Lake was heralded as ‘the first erotic novel written by an Indigenous woman in French.’ Bordeleau’s novel does not enter into the genre lightly; the English translation’s preface explicates that The Lover, the Lake aims to render ‘a history of pleasure in the body in a world as yet untouched by Indian residential schools and the multiple instances of abuse carried out on children by church representatives,’ a specific moment in time ‘before the rift that occurred in the consciousness of Indigenous peoples’ as a result of such overwhelming systemic violence.

As a contribution to the genre, The Lover, the Lake does what is expected of an erotic romance, at times to its diminishment. Certain tropes feel exhausted: the good male protagonist who introduces incredible oral sex to its heroine; the benevolent older prostitute who teaches the hero how to truly please a woman, and thus truly be a man; one too many kindly uncles and fellow soldiers who dole out surfeits of stilted colloquialism. Other aspects that otherwise skirt the line of cliché are buoyed by Bordeleau’s deliberate frame. The trope of the lovers who understand each other without speaking, who slowly teach each other one another’s language, for example, is rendered fractionally more interesting in a work that is, itself, struggling against the confines of colonial grammar.

The Lover, the Lake is compelling in its specific depiction of the tensions that surround Gabriel and Wabougouni, moving between Lake Abitibi, Gabriel’s Quebecois village, and the frontlines of the Second World War. Attempting to capture dynamics untouched by the Canadian residential school system does not mean presenting a precolonial paradise or a world without conflict or trauma. Wabougouni’s grandmother, Zagkigan Ikwe, was raped by a Christian missionary; she and Wabougouni live in an uneasy truce with the rest of their clan, who are largely Indigenous Christian converts. Gabriel, meanwhile, is ushered to the fringes of Quebec society because of his race and, simultaneously, fetishized and preyed upon as an exotic rarity in Paris.

The fantasy of pleasure and freedom—what we might term a sense of escapism—in Wabougouni and Gabriel’s connection comes not from an avoidance or erasure of the difficulties and traumas of colonization, but through its insistence that confrontation is necessary for healing. When The Lover, the Lake engages with these ideas, it breaks from its formula and offers an intriguing glimpse into richer depths.

Nathan Niigan Noodin Adler’s Ghost Lake is, in many ways, the opposite of Bordeleau’s The Lover, the Lake. A companion short-story collection to Adler’s horror novel Wrist, Ghost Lake contains 13 loosely interconnected stories of the eerie, magical world that surrounds the titular community.

Though Wrist’s companion, Ghost Lake is not strictly horror. There are great, gory flashes of it—a haunted woman fights off an inhumanly strong attacker, two cousins venture into an isolated cave hunting murderous memengwesiag (small and shadowy winged tricksters)—but other stories remain in the realm of the mysterious and more-than-human. Thunderbirds reanimate an injured driver; an isolated Misaabe, a giantess, saves an injured hiker; a love letter is left in a spider’s web. Adler has no shortage of ideas, and Ghost Lake’s sprawling density is its most absorbing quality.

And yet Ghost Lake’s lush sense of place comes at the expense of its characters. Its vast landscapes and scope frequently weigh down its prose, obscuring any distinctive character voice and countervailing any emotional impact. In fact, just about every story could be halved—and benefit immensely from it.

Often, Ghost Lake’s excess results from its indecision in the face of the supernatural. The characters run up against events that seem too extraordinary to believe. In ‘Incendiaries,’ three bored white teenagers, Clay, Dare and Tyler, ransack an Indigenous burial ground for fun and are subsequently haunted by a cast of vengeful spirits who frighten them into returning their stolen offerings. When confronted by his spectral visitor, Clay wonders: ‘Did he only imagine it? Was it only a hallucination? Was it all in his head?’ Later, surprised by an old woman visiting a burial ground, Clay’s friend Dare repeats this same pattern: ‘Goddamned, lady almost gave him a heart attack! Was she there the whole time? Or was she sitting so still, and quiet, that he didn’t notice her until he was right in front of her?’ Rather than effectively highlight the uncanniness of these situations, these routine carousels of rational explanations grind many of the stories to a halt.

While returning a stolen child’s rattle to the spirit of their mother Naphtha, Tyler also lapses into a curious litany, wondering:

Did Naphtha sing? What songs would those have been? Goodbye songs, songs of memory and loss? Or songs to conjure the dead? He’s glad he never got around to using the instrument to record an audio track. Once captured in digital software, how would he be able to return sound?

Tyler’s questions are especially frustrating; one wishes Adler had attempted to answer these prompts and dramatized them on the page instead. A story of returning stolen sound, of new technological hauntings and appropriations, immediately seems far more potent than following three functionally identical teens repeating the same character beats, learning the same lessons. A stronger editorial hand might have guided Adler toward a sharper structure.

Where The Lover, the Lake promises the fantasy of pleasure, Ghost Lake seeks to shock, surprise and scare. But to enjoy the escapist qualities of this genre requires room for the reader’s imagination to run alongside the author’s. While Adler is skilled at imagining gripping, cinematic scenarios, Ghost Lake’s tendency to over-explicate its anxieties drains its stories of their supernatural power. A more rigorous edit would open up more space for the reader to engage with the collection’s world, rather than be puppeted by its constrictive script. One is left eager to see how Adler’s writing will mature and develop with more support.

Rebecca Peng