Mile End by Lise Tremblay, translated by Gail Scott

When I saw this book at the library and read that it was about a “grotesque fat woman getting larger every day”, I immediately thought of Melanie’s quest for fat-positive books which prompted me to bring this one home and read it.

I have to admit that, from the blurb on the back of the book, fat positive messages did not seem likely. But with the description of Mile End as a “chilling  and masterful look at the interior landscape of psychosis” I was intrigued.

Mile End is narrated by an unnamed woman. She has a job she’s not passionate about, one good friend whose career is taking off and she’s afraid she is going to lose him, a “boyfriend” who is basically just using her for sex at his convenience, her parents are getting divorced, and she is fat and getting fatter by the day.

Walking, I could feel my damp underclothes, sticking to my skin. It was uncomfortable, but at the same time, I felt guilty, as if I should have kept myself from sweating. My body was out of control, my fat was out of control, and my cape and the huge pieces of fabric in which I draped myself seemed of no use.

Her father (who is a local celebrity) is somewhat estranged from his family, so she hasn’t seen his side of the family since she was very young. But she has a few memories in which they are all fat like her. She feels “displaced” in a world where her mother is skinny and her father is critical of her and ashamed of her fatness, a trait that he himself has been battling his entire life.

For a long time I managed to forget about my body, until recently. I am haunted by the image of my father who seems to be growing fat again on magazine covers, also by my odour which resembles the odour in the impeccable little white house where my father’s family lives. A little house full of big fat people.

As she goes through her days, she becomes more and more distressed about where she comes from and where she belongs, “a tightly wound emotional spring, set to lash out terribly on a world of blind, and therefore tormenting indifference”. The ending really took me by surprise.

Although I’m not planning to analyse the fat messages in this book (I’ll leave that to Melanie!), it’s hard to write about the book without mentioning it at all. I feel as though most of the feelings surrounding the character’s fat are negative – she feels shame and guilt, she feels “weighed down by her body”, she feels as though she carries a lot of things around in her fat such as her passion for life and all the stories of her family’s history. On the other hand, when she goes to visit her father’s family in their little white house, where all the women and some of the men are fat, their fatness seems to be commonplace and accepted. Unfortunately, this part of the book is just a little snippet.

In a scene towards the end of the book, her “boyfriend” decides he wants to slim down and tries to bring her on board with him, but she has no interest. (“I wasn’t interested in being saved.”) Which sounds like it could be a positive thing, until you know how the story ends… in which case you might see it more as foreshadowing.

The narrator also makes many generalizations about fat people throughout the book… “I tell Paul I am typical of fat women. I have put nothing in my mouth but a coffee since morning.”, “I drop food on my dress like fat women always do.”, and “I like winter best. I wrap myself in my capes and I hide my body. All fat people like winter.”.

Melanie, no pressure, but I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say about this book!

Mile End by Lise Tremblay won the 1999 Governor General’s Literary Award for French Fiction.

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19 thoughts on “Mile End by Lise Tremblay, translated by Gail Scott

  1. Rebecca Foster says:

    The statements about being a fat woman remind me of those in Atwood’s Lady Oracle (e.g. “I was quite fat by this time and all fat women look the same, they all look forty-two.”). What is the significance of the original title (“The Jewish Dance”?) and why do you think they’ve gone for such a different title for the English translation?

    • Naomi says:

      42? I don’t remember that. I must have been a LOT younger than 42 when I read Lady Oracle. Why 42, I wonder?
      Mile End in Montreal is where the Jewish community lives. But, even though it was mentioned a few times (I think her boyfriend was a lapsed Jew), the book didn’t strike me as being particularly Jewish or about the Jewish community. Maybe I missed something…

  2. FictionFan says:

    From the bits you’ve quoted, it doesn’t seem to be giving any kind of positive messages about fatness! Especially the generalisations – I suppose being first person that could just be part of her characters as opposed to the author’s opinion, but still. Mind you, I suppose it would be as unrealistic if books suggested all fat people were comfortable with being fat as suggesting that none are…

    • Naomi says:

      That’s true! And, yes, I just took all the messages in this book as being part of the character – I thought it was a good book! The ending really surprised me.

  3. Elle says:

    Oh bloody hell. I mean, I self-identify as fat, although I retain a lot of privilege (I can generally shop in straight-sized stores, use public transport without difficulty, etc.). And I sure as hell do think about my body a lot, especially how it seems to other people/out in public/when it’s hot out, but the first quotation just seems like perpetuation of stereotypes (sweat, discomfort, “out of control”-ness, shame manifesting as self-loathing) without any sense of *this particular character*. I would love to know if Lise Tremblay identifies herself as a fat person.

    • Naomi says:

      I definitely thought that the character in the book was generalizing a lot about fat people. I don’t know why… but I’m guessing that because it’s so blatant, it’s the character talking and not the author. But I don’t know that for sure. Most of the interviews or information I found about Lise Tremblay were in French. I could have waded through them, but decided not to spend the time.

    • Naomi says:

      I really liked the character, actually, and thought it felt realistic that she thought so much about her size. It’s not especially positive though – that’s true!

  4. Grab the Lapels says:

    “No pressure!” she says! Thanks, Naomi! Although I appreciate your faith in my analysis, I want to be clear that I am not the expert on being fat. Simply, I am a fat lady who set guidelines for books that I want to read about fatness that are fair to fat people. For example, I don’t see it as an issue that she mentions sweat and being uncomfortable in her body. It CAN be uncomfortable to exist in a fat body. However, constantly berating that body without see what it CAN is something I find frustrating. Fat people don’t walk around miserable all the time, which makes us just like everyone else: we have good and bad days, days when we appreciate or fight with the bodies that carry us around. Mile End is on my June reading list!

    • Naomi says:

      You may not be an expert, but you’re a good and fair reviewer and I trust your opinion. 🙂
      For example, what you’re saying in this comment makes so much sense. I don’t feel as though she was constantly attacking herself or feeling uncomfortable. But because of what this story is about, we see a lot of it as she connects her psychological state with her physical state.
      Looking forward to your review!

      • Grab the Lapels says:

        Thanks for your kind words. I’m excited to read this book. It doesn’t sound like it makes things tra-la-la happy; it sounds realistic without being horribly unfair.

  5. buriedinprint says:

    How handy that Melanie has recruits reading around the world for her project! Hee hee This one sounds intriguing and I’m curious to see how it compares to Mona Awad’s novel (which comes to mind because of the “boyfriend” scene). Talonbooks has published some really curious stuff and when I see that a book is one of theirs, I’m always that much more interested (even though this is an older one too). Plus, I keep saying that I’m going to read more Quebecois fiction… *sigh* Reading projects…

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