Shadow Giller: Songs for the Cold of Heart by Eric DuPont, translated by Peter McCambridge

Songs for the Cold of Heart is a big book. It took me over a week to read it. But I loved every minute of it. What a ride.

Louis “the Horse” Lamontagne from Riviére-du-Loup Quebec, and his daughter Madeleine, are at the heart of this story. However, there are so many other wonderful characters in the book that at times you get immersed in their tales and (almost) forget about Louis and Madeleine. But, yes, we are first introduced to young Madeleine bringing her father glasses of gin to keep him telling the stories he’s famous for. Then, even after his death, his character looms large in everyone’s memory and imagination.

As any drinking man in Riviere-du-Loup will tell you, it was TV that killed the Horse, not the combustion engine. They’ll also tell you – and there’s no reason to doubt them – that any man’s story, wherever he may be, never finds a more attentive ear than his daughter’s, especially if she is the oldest and as such occupies a special place of her own in her father’s heart.

Songs for the Cold of Heart is made up of stories within stories. Stories that go back to the turn of the 20th century, stories that take place all over the world, stories that dazzle and shock – love, ambition, adventure, betrayal, tragedy, family, home – stories with echos and parallels running through them – teal coloured eyes, bass clef birthmarks, recurring names, paintings of the Virgin’s death, mustachioed Popes – and stories that entertain, each one the antidote to the last.

There’s the one about Louis “the Horse” Lamontagne’s parents and how he came to be in this world…

An American! Just imagine! The young lad had surely been seduced from the first minute by the red-haired devil. Two reliable witnesses had even seen them kissing on the lips, right under the noses of Old Ma Madeleine, Father Cousineau, and Louis-Benjamin’s little sisters, whose salvation had surely now been compromised by such debauchery.

Some one hundred people, most of them bright young things with no fear of God or high winds, faced with the choice of watching the American bring a child into the world or freezing to death in a blizzard, had chosen to brave the elements without a second’s hesitation.

The one about Louis “the Horse” Lamontagne’s strongman years (and his success with the ladies)…

Louis Cyr might have been the world’s strongest man, but never its most handsome, Louis Cyr had never caused the young ladies of the state of New York to spontaneously ovulate. Louis Cyr did not have Louis Lamontagne’s angelic smile. Cyr had been a brute force straight out of the Old Testament; the Canadian colossus now crouching down under the wooden door looked more like an attempt by God to seek forgiveness for the flood and the regrettable excesses of Deuteronomy.

And let’s not forget the story of how Madeleine and Solange’s friendship got started (over “the end of the world” and “Chinese babies”)…

“I’ve just seen a quite incredible person, who looked at me like no one has ever looked at me before. I saw, in the depths of her teal-coloured eyes, the answers to my fraught existence. Never again will I be able to begin another day without first dedicating it to this being of light who lives in the house beside mine. In her absence, I will be no more than a lost, hopeless animal. I understood as I fell to the lush green grass that never again would I be the same, that life without this being would be nothing more than a dreadful, tiresome sham. Needless to say, I will spend the rest of my existence praying to God for this being to set eyes on me a second time. Until then, every move I make, every word I speak, every person who passes through my life, everything I eat, the stars in the sky, the animals of Creation – all will be relegated to the realm of nonsense and foolishness. My name is Solange Bérubé and I exist only for the eyes of Madeleine Lamontagne.”

And we are only about a quarter of the way through the book.

Madeleine grows up, moves away, and stays away – wanting nothing more to do with her family or Riviére-du-Loup.  With Solange, she starts her own breakfast franchise, and builds a new life for herself. The relationship between Madeleine and Solange remained somewhat of a mystery to me – I wonder if I missed a clue along the way. But I did come across a remark later in the book – a rather surprising (not to mention disturbing) one – that gave me a hint (while throwing me for a loop at the same time).

This book is not a stranger to surprising, tragic and disturbing events.

In the latter half of the book, the narrative moves across the ocean to Germany and France. Tales are told between the two countries by way of hand-written letters, which for me was one of the best parts of the book. (And perhaps the inspiration for James’s excellent review of it.) Estranged brothers, catching up on their lives, one a self-proclaimed book thief (who steals a book from each of his lovers and has accumulated quite a library), the other an opera singer. How do these brothers and their stories tie in with the Lamontagnes and the humble town of Riviére-du-Loup? In many entertaining and surprising ways.

I didn’t even put a dent in this book.

Songs for the Cold of Heart is sure to melt the coldest of literary hearts.

Some good lines and passages…

I never swipe a book unless I intend to read the whole thing. Ill-gotten gains seldom prosper, as they say. But my books weren’t ill-gotten and they’re still prospering away. I’d wager, in fact, that most of the girls I took a book from never even noticed. And if they did, they were probably grateful for me freeing them of a burden. People are always reluctant to get rid of their books; they enjoy a strange sort of relationship with them. Once they’ve read a book, they let it clutter up their tiny apartment for years until they suddenly realize, when moving day comes around, just how heavy paper can be. And they swear as they carry their boxes down the stairs, cursing Simone de Beauvoir, telling Thomas Bernhard he can go to hell. But as soon as they get to their new place, there they are, patiently putting up their bookcases again, more often than not arranging the books in alphabetical order, like beavers rebuilding a dam after a flood. Truth be told, I’m doing these girls a favour.

As for her voice – a husky growl escaping from an ashen, wrinkled throat – it seemed to come straight from the deep, smoking crater of a devastated land.

While he did up his fly, Solange had wondered when that thing had grown between his legs and, especially, how it had grown so fast? What prayer had been answered in return for it? What good deed had it rewarded? The thing – it looked so small, topped with a sort of bishop’s hat – seemed to endow its owner with such incredible powers and privileges: he could drive a car, wear a cowboy hat, snore on the living-room sofa, speak at the table, exist.

Voices are as tricky to describe as the taste of nutmeg or the feel of sand between your toes.

Remember these words: women must help one another.

… while ordinary love is cruel, Puccinian love is merciless.

(For those of you who know Puccini’s Tosca, references to it are found everywhere in the book. However, It’s still completely lovable if you don’t.)

Further Reading: 

Not only is Songs for the Cold of Heart shortlisted for the Giller, it is also a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Translation.

Links to Kim and Marcie’s reviews will be available once they’re up.

The Miramichi Reader: “The good folks at QC Fiction supplied me with an Advance Reading Copy and I discovered Songs for the Cold of Heart to be an epic, rambling, decades-spanning, vastly entertaining book… If you read only one fiction book this year, make it this one.”

Literary Hoarders: “The quality of the literary storytelling inside is phenomenal and the translation is impeccable. McCambridge maintains the eloquence and lyricism in Dupont’s writing and the whole reading experience was truly a wonderful one.”

Montreal Review of Books:To take a review much further into Dupont’s elaborate narrative construction would be to cheat readers of the novel’s main pleasure: the organic way it fans out from the micro to the macro and back again over the span of a century, taking what we’ve been conditioned to think of as a parochial society – indeed, Fraserville in 1917 is replete with the classic types, including a priest with less than pure designs on some of his flock – and reminding us that things are seldom so simple.


35 thoughts on “Shadow Giller: Songs for the Cold of Heart by Eric DuPont, translated by Peter McCambridge

  1. LiteraryHoarders (@LiteraryHoarder) says:

    So loved this one! Really hoping it takes the Giller and the GG Books awards! Both for it’s amazing fiction (Giller) and the amazing translation (GG). Yes! Loved every minute of this – you’ve captured it far better than I tried – there is so much inside, but it’s all so wonderfully great!

    Looking forward to hearing what your other Shadow Giller panellists have to say about it! 🙂 (~Penny)

  2. P McCambridge says:

    Wow, thank you so much for the review! More than anything else, I especially love how you worked in some of my favourite quotes. 🙂

  3. A Life in Books says:

    Lovely review, Naomi. It must have taken some writerly skill to knit these many and various stories into a single entity. Fingers crossed that it will be published here in the UK.

  4. Rebecca Foster says:

    I’ve heard this likened to John Irving’s storytelling, which makes it very appealing. I love the flavour you’ve given of the stories and the recurring elements. I hope I’ll get a chance to read it.

    • Naomi says:

      I hope you do, too!
      Yes, I think it reminded both Laura and Penny of John Irving. It’s been so long since I read one of his books, that I can’t really say. It doesn’t really matter, though – it’s just good! 🙂

  5. lauratfrey says:

    I emailed you because I have to know what remark you’re referring to, and assume it’s too big a spoiler! Great review, this is a very difficult book to summarize so I agree, better not to try. The letters were a bit “much” (e.g. no one writes full dialogue in a letter) but the story was so good, I didn’t care!

    • Naomi says:

      That’s true about the letters – I remember thinking at one point that he would have to be riding the train for hours or even days to write his letters. But, like you say, it’s so good it doesn’t matter!

  6. buriedinprint says:

    I’m enjoying this immensely as well and can tell, from the quotes you’ve included from beyond my own experience of reading it, that my enjoyment is going to continue (and, possibly, even increase). That first quote is one that I wrote out as well. And I just loved the initial scene of the storytelling – so evocative and engaging. Wheeee!

  7. annelogan17 says:

    I’ve been hearing such wonderful things about this one-would you say it’s the ‘dark horse’ of the gillers this year? He read such a disturbing but slightly funny passage at the giller event-it was shocking! The part about the child in the coffin-yikes!!! No one saw that coming, especially because he was so funny

    • Naomi says:

      The whole book is like that – it’s wonderful!

      It’s probably fair to call it the “dark horse” of the Gillers this year. I’d say it was practically unknown outside of Quebec until it made the list.

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