Back in January, my heart was stolen by And the Birds Rained Down. So I was very happy to get my hands on Twenty-One Cardinals, also translated from French by Rhonda Mullins.
There are 21 kids in the Cardinal family.
The two dozen eggs in the morning, the hundred pounds of potatoes in the cellar, the morning battles to find our boots, the evening battles for a place in front of the TV, the constant battles for nothing, for fun, out of habit. The good ol’ days.
We were the kings. The real deal. We wanted so much from ourselves and from life that everything around us seemed pathetic.
They are growing up in a mining community in Northern Quebec. Their father, the prospector that discovered the zinc mine the town was built around is being recognized for his achievements, and the family is coming together for the first time in 30 years. All but one. One of their sisters went missing long ago, and no one has been able to confront it. The siblings who know what happened aren’t even sure who knows about it and who doesn’t. Their aim was to protect the others, but secrets have a way of getting under your skin and festering.
The synopsis given on the back of the book is a bit misleading. It makes the book sound like more of a mystery than it really is. It’s more of a family secret. And, the book is about how this secret has become bigger than it needs to be, and how it has played an important role in determining the course of the siblings’ lives and the relationships they have with each other. The older siblings have taken on a lot of guilt and responsibility, while the youngest is happily in the dark, always itching to hear the stories of the good old days, most of which he was too young to remember.
Could we have forged a bit of peace and happiness for ourselves if we had agreed to live out our tragedy in the light of day?
Although I didn’t like this one as much as And the Birds rained Down (hard to top that one!), it still had the same lovely writing that just pulls you along. I did notice, though, as the story went on, that sometimes I felt like the language was too dramatic for the situation. I don’t know if it was in the translation, or if I just didn’t find the secret as shocking and horrifying as I was supposed to. Sometimes the intensity of feelings and the deep meaning of things seemed a little too much.
When you’re a Cardinal, you can’t just give in to the beauty of rustling palm trees in the setting sun. You need a harsh, austere environment you can chafe against, one you can use to condemn those who have it easier.
What I liked best was the alternating views we get from 6 of the siblings. This gives us a look at the family and the tragedy from different perspectives; as they are now and as they were as kids. Reading about them as kids is fascinating; the dreamy father, the busy mother in the kitchen or popping out babies, the oldest daughter rocking the babies, the oldest sons vying for their father’s attention and wreaking havoc on the neighbours, the youngest children wanting to be in on everything.
Truth is not where we think it is.
I would love to have heard from the mother. Can you imagine being the mother of 21 kids? Making sure they’re all fed, clothed, and safe? From the sounds of it that’s all she really had time for; she spent most of her time in the kitchen while her children had the run of the place. I wanted to know what she thought of everything. Did she really know each of her children as well she would have liked? Was she happy? Did she wish she could take a more active role in her children’s lives, rather than just count them at the dinner table and kiss them in their beds? What was she thinking through it all?? Her side of the story could be a whole other book.
Our mother didn’t have time. She would prepare a birthday meal, and we barely saw her behind her enormous table, the fatigue of an entire life making her invisible.
She was driven by urgency: the urgency of meals, the urgency of children, the urgency of the days going by, the urgency of thoughts that she chased off with confused mumbling… She went back and forth in great strides as if she had kilometres to travel between the sink and the stove. Terrorized by time, sighing, labouring like a madwoman, muttering like a kook.
For another good review, visit Buried In Print. Has anyone else read or reviewed this book?