Montreal to Mexico

Damselfish

By Kelly Murphy

A review of Damselfish by Susan Ouriou

Published on April 1, 2004

Damselfish
Susan Ouriou

XYZ Publishing
$22.95
paper
186pp
1-894852-2

Translator, fiction writer, and interpreter Susan Ouriou begins her career as a novelist with Damselfish, a story of family told from the point of view of Hope, a 24-year-old artist. Hope, her sister Faith, and their mother each travel from their homes in Montreal to Mexico for seemingly separate reasons. Hope goes to Mexico City on a painting grant, though she is also hoping to find her estranged Mexican father, whom she calls Papi. Faith, a linguist and code specialist, suddenly arrives from McGill to study the native Nahuatl language. Their mother had left Montreal for Cuernavaca to work as a translator seven years earlier, shortly after her husband’s departure.

Since her father’s desertion in her early teens and her mother’s subsequent move, Hope has felt that her family fell apart. She feels she has never successfully grown up, which she attributes to her failure to resolve the mystery surrounding her father’s sudden absence from her life. “But all teens leave the child’s adoring mother/father love behind…I’d never mourned outgrowing my father love, in fact I’d never let myself outgrow him because I always expected him to come back.”

The need for family and security leads Hope to romanticize the nature of the damselfish, one of which she discovers while snorkeling. Damselfish, without any natural defences, defend the nests containing their young by menacingly patrolling the area surrounding the reef. Unlike the damselfish, Hope considers herself unable to commit to a mate; of her own mother she says, “She couldn’t protect us any more than she could protect herself.”

Ouriou succeeds in the presentation of her naive, melodramatic and emotionally confused young protagonist. The traits that accompany these, however, limit the extent to which the reader can develop an understanding of the other characters. Hope is self-involved and analytical, but lacks insight into the others in her life. She considers her sister’s pregnancy an inconvenience to herself, and later doubts the legitimacy of Faith’s symptoms when she becomes ill. Ouriou gives her the habit of reading other people’s journals, which makes up for some of her missing perception, but Hope consistently turns the journal entries into food for self-obsession. “I felt unclean when I closed the pages. But I said to myself, sometimes you have to get dirty to stay clean. To stay free of the stain of future guilt and to prevent what might have come.”

While the story is one of women, and seemingly targeted towards a female readership, Ouriou manages to draw her secondary male characters without emasculating or demeaning them. Jose, Hope’s love interest, is a teacher, carpenter, and man of some faith who plays a significant role as an influence on and support for Hope. Kiko, Faith’s Nahuatl tutor, is quiet and conservative, an atheistic intellectual. The father is one of the most complex characters in the book – he is shown washing his daughter’s hair, writing poetry, trying to find religious truths, dealing with the differences between Montreal and Mexico, all while struggling with mental illness. Hope pulls influences from each of these men as she tries to understand her sister, her mother, and herself.

The language of the novel is simple, following the stream of consciousness of a 24-year-old. Sentences are often fragmented to reflect Hope’s pauses in thought. The narrative frequently refers back to itself, resembling bumps in a film. Although the themes of family, procreation, death, desertion, art, poetry, religion, physical illness, and mental illness are all well related, it is difficult to make much out of bursts of analysis on so many topics. The novel may have held together more cohesively had there been fewer elements with which to deal, and had they each been treated more thoroughly. mRb

Kelly Murphy studied English at the University of King's College in Halifax.

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