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Chat Sauvage by Jacques Poulin Review

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If I was to choose a single word to describe Jacques Poulin's style of writing, it would be cozy. French literature is very, well, literary for the most part - writers enjoy the search for obscure, elegant words, an abstract and elevated style of expression, a certain distance from the reader in the way that it is structured. Poulin's writing is not at all like that: whether it is his personal affection, or whether it is something more common to Quebecois literature, he writes much more humbly, and there is a certain charm and feeling of homeliness to his writing, that makes it feel cozy - that makes it feel approchable, that makes it feel more intimate and close to the reader. It wraps you up and new things slip in, almost unannounced, without fanfare - like the very main character himself, Jack, the same as that of Volkwasagen Blues.

Poulin is well aware of this I think: in Chat sauvage one of his characters talks to the main character, mentioning that style is the most important of anything when it comes to a writer, and that it is bizarre that when we do book reviews and write of authors, we lavish attention on their ideas, upon their plots, upon their stories - but just devote a few desultory words to their style, when style is everything. And indeed, perhaps this is true to some extent with Poulin's book, since what strikes me in remember it aren't his plots, but rather homely little moments which reverberate still: in Volkswagen Blues, listening to the radio as the old Volkswagen van (a reoccurring theme of Poulin's books) rumbled across the American West, or here where Jack sat on the bench of an art museum waiting for the return of a woman he saw, Kim, or years later with them living together when she brought a casserole in their apartment, or Jack and the old man he had been looking for themselves looking over Quebec City. Poulin is capable of writing atmosphere to give a feeling of place, and you can truly feel that you are in Quebec, really feel that you live in the warm little bubble of Jack's quiet, domestic, life.

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If this was found alone however, it would make for a very superficial story. Poulin's writing is deeper than that. His exploration of the thoughts and feelings of a public writer, and the nature and work of a psychologist, are fascinating. My favorite sections of the book comes from this look into what seems to be a very Francophone institution: an individual who writes letters, CVs, resumes, love notes, for other people. The stories which cross in front of Jack desk are varied, from annoying comedians to lovers, but they are a real jewel to read.

The plot at the heart of the book is also washed in mystery: trying to figure out how the strange old man who Poulin pursues through the streets of Quebec, or the teenaged girl he ran into at a bookstore, both of whom are shrouded in the cloak of secrecy. There is suspense and thrill in trying to figure out who they are, what their relation is.

But this makes the ending of the book feel like a dreadful let down, since the old man is never really revealed in his identity, and while the young girl is, the way in which the story ends seems oddly contrived: why must Jack part for the young girl? Different reviews online point out that some of these characters come from previous books: perhaps it becomes more understandable when you have read the entirety of the canon of Poulin. Others are more odd, like the scene of the assault on Kim, Jack's partner - which is almost without relationship to the broader development of the story, a strange interval which only is brought in to encourage going to New England for a holiday.

So maybe Poulin's book is difficult to judge because it isn't a book in the classic sense, but rather a work which, while not being a series, sprawls out across multiple books, each one unconnected. One which doesn't have action, but rather atmosphere and charm. One which is a window onto souls and a place. It's worth the read, whatever the ending may have been.

© 2021 Ryan C Thomas

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