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book review:

Fences in Breathing

With over 30 books published, twice the recipient of the Governor General’s Award for poetry, and the winner of the Canada Council’s Molson Prize for a lifetime of achievement, Nicole Brossard’s writing has always contested and played with the lim­its of structure, sound, language, and the search for meaning. Her recent work, Fences in Breathing, is no exception. On the surface, it’s a story about a woman’s invitation to stay at a Swiss château and her desire to write a book in a language different from her own, to “measure the impasses of my own language and not see my own limits.” Brossard bends the genre and traditional structure of the novel by conflating the boundaries between poetry, prose, personal journal and theory, and re-spins them into a patchwork of tenu­ous character ‘sketches’ with multiple points of view. Within these pages is a world where characters toil with their sensibilities to find a meaning in words that are not familiar or predictable to them. With metaphors about wooden armoires that keep invisible secrets, constant shifts in narrative perspective and a persistent, yet somehow muted, longing to connect, the reader is made to work for a meaning that stretches the imagination of what we think language can do.

The third section in Fences in Breathing omits any punctuation except the period to indicate a shift in narration. This gives a sense of Brossard’s poetic command, creating a tension imprinted by vulner­ability. One might wonder: What is a fence in one’s breathing? An impression of this haunting image is unearthed in the short, untitled first section of the novel, which expresses a kind of darkness that renders everything nameless and yet familiar, where the elimination of those “little fences of resistance”–in self awareness, connecting with others, breathing–may take place.

The writer and lodger, Anne; the owner of the chateau who invites Anne to stay; Tatiana Beaujeu Lehmann; armoire sculptor Charles; his sister who romanticizes about moving to the north, Kim; her lover June; a lawyer who obsessively studies the Patriot Act, Laure Ravin, compile mo­ments–portraits–of inner thoughts that unravel their oscillations between plea­sure and anguish, confusion and simplic­ity. Brossard’s Fences in Breathing performs words that read like refractions of light and echo like images in multiple mirrors, keeping the reader engaged in an act of “plunging into the void of one’s language and being afraid.” (D. Brooke Ford)

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