Fiction

On y danse tous en rond

Piers’ Desire
Marianne Ackerman

McArthur & Company
$24.95
hardcover
320pp
9781552788509

Piers’ Desire, the third novel by Montreal-based writer Marianne Ackerman (Jump, Matters of Hart) starts with a promise of excitement. Piers Le Gris, a middle-aged author of pulpy mystery novels, is living a monastic existence. He’s the only guest in a rooming house in Avignon where he pounds away at his keyboard between sunset and sunrise. His life seems good: the town is charming, his books sell well (“like stout at closing time”), and his elderly landlady, Nelly, dotes on him.

Within the first chapter, “on the night it all began to crumble like so much weary plaster,” Piers’ solitude is broken. Seventeen-year-old Magali, the landlady’s great-niece, has moved into the rooming house and makes her arrival known to Piers through self-induced orgasmic cries that travel easily through the water-stained walls. Magali has recently terminated an unwanted pregnancy, dumped the boy responsible (Mouloud), and moved to Avignon to start university. She is ready to move on to the next stage of life, but her sulky, love-sick ex follows her to Avignon and won’t leave her alone. He is moody, confused, and has a violent streak.

The landlady, Nelly, has a past full of pain as well. During World War II, she fell in love with a member of the French Resistance who, we ascertain, never came back onto the scene. Shortly after the book begins, Nelly is inspired to write down her story, which Magali discovers and surreptitiously reads with relish.

Unfortunately, after this complex and promising beginning, the characters do little. Although Magali’s perky young body stirs lust in Piers, he doesn’t seem to know what he wants to do about it and their interactions remain mostly PG-13. When Nelly becomes jealous of Piers’ interest in Magali, she retreats into her diary writing. Magali’s attempts to get to know Piers or read Nelly’s journal are constantly interrupted by her melodramatic ex-boyfriend. The book jacket promises “perilous intrigue,” “love and redemption,” and that Piers will find himself “dangerously entangled in the crosscurrents of desire,” but this exhilarating emotional danger never materializes. Other characters wander into the book and offer some excitement (a mugging, an orgy, etc.) but these interesting side dishes do not affect the book’s main course: Piers, Magali, and Nelly’s relationships with one another.

Piers’ Desire is extremely readable: the pacing is excellent and Ackerman’s writing has a strong sense of place. Readers will taste the hot-chocolate soaked croissants at breakfast and feel the Avignon cobblestones beneath their feet as characters dash from one place to another. Ackerman also creates extremely engaging characters. There are the three central characters, of course, but also others: Mouloud, Magali’s maddeningly sulky ex-boyfriend; Chanelle, Piers’ ex-lover, a wealthy and neglected married woman whose yellow lace lingerie complements the lemon yellow sofa in her salon; and, briefly, Isabelle Tweed, Piers’ editor, “a taciturn spinster with tea-stained teeth” who has “little tolerance for the clever turn of phrase, even less for the stench of irony.” Point of view is sometimes a problem. In some passages it flip-flops jarringly from one character to another (or, in one brief and disorienting paragraph, to the dog), but these are the only hiccups in otherwise smooth prose.

Piers’ Desire has all the makings of a great novel – exotic location, characters with shady pasts, unrequited love, and the occasional racy sex scene. In the end, however, the reader is left confused about what it is that Piers truly desires and whether or not he got it. mRb

Sarah Lolley is the 2017 CBC/QWF Writer-in-Residence. She writes essays, crime fiction, and children’s literature, and is an avid fan of cryptic crosswords.

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