Kuessipan, Naomi Fontaine, 99 pgs, Arsenal Pulp Press, www.arsenalpulp.com, $14.95
The title of Naomi Fontaine’s debut novel is a word in the Innu language, meaning ‘your turn’ or ‘your move’. The book takes the form of a series of fragmented vignettes, each expounding on an image or a character form the Innu community of Northern Quebec, of which Fontaine is herself a native.
The book often feels like a series of art photographs, or a series of verité-documentaries captured in poetic form. Fontaine details a cross-section of the community, making the reader conscious of the transience of their lives, their occasional desperation, and the crumbling of their identity as they attempt to fit their culture into the 21st century.
Though the writing is mostly beautiful, the prose does find itself turning a little purple. This may be simply due to the fact that the book is translated from French to English. The structure of the book also makes it a little exhausting to read at times, leaving the reader constantly adrift, feeling like they are crossing a threshold to a new story with the turn of each page.
This is barely relevant, however, as the novel’s short length keeps it well away from outstaying its welcome. Fontaine’s chosen style presents us with a tableau of a people, while at the same time getting behind that and delivering intimacy and empathy on an individual level. Her work expresses the idea of hope and rebirth in a culture that continues to struggle for dignity and identitiy. It’s here that the relevance of the novel’s title comes into play: the word Kuessipan challenges and invites the next generation of Canada’s native people to tend to their legacy in the face of the attrition of an indifferent society. (Mike Heneghan)