Dreadful Paris

Dreadful Paris

By Adriana Palanca

A review of Dreadful Paris by Melissa A. Thompson

Published on October 1, 2006

Dreadful Paris
Melissa A. Thompson

Snare Books
$10
paper
122pp
978-0-9739438-1-8

As the heroine of Dreadful Paris so fluently demonstrates time and time again, photographs are both incredibly powerful and incredibly unreliable. What other medium so artfully captures the ambience of a moment while simultaneously preventing the observer from understanding the subject beyond that one still moment? Certainly not literature, and presumably that’s why Thompson chose to write a novel instead of mounting a photographic exhibit: to give us the full context so that our understanding can go beyond the borders of a photograph.

Thompson could not have chosen a more apt metaphor. For even though Ramona DeLottenville takes photographs to try and establish a point of reference in her life, her inability to develop – and thus look – at any of the countless photos she has taken speaks volumes about her inability to confront the truth of her own life.

The author does a formidable job in making us believe just how rudderless Ramona is:

 

One miraculous day, the stars will align, the air will clear and I will take all of the films to a photo counter. I will stand at the counter…and wait for all the small endings of my life to pour forth in hundreds of small shiny papers.

 

In an attempt to prove to her overachieving family that she has direction in her life, Ramon suddenly announces that she is going to London to obtain rare thaumatropes in an auction. (A thaumatrope is a popular Victorian toy consisting of a card with a picture on each side attached to two pieces of string. Twirl the string between your fingers quickly, and the two pictures appear to combine.) But for Ramona, the thaumatropes are just an excuse, as the only “treasure” Ramona is truly interested in tracking down is her childhood friend Sophie Parkers. It is this search that dominates the action of the novel.

We do not doubt for a moment that something is terribly wrong with the direction that Ramona is taking, that it will only end in heartache. However, thanks to Thompson’s intervention, we are fortunate enough to partake of the sparkling thoughts fluttering across the mind of this so-called “dull sister.” Observing Gran plucking the currants from a tray of scones, Ramona comments, “She did this not with the passion of someone who hates currants, but with the impatience of someone who no longer smokes and is having second thoughts.”

Much like the quaint size of the book, with scrapbook-style format with drawings, photographs, and snippets from Ramona’s notebook, makes for a more “intimate” reading. We feel as if we are being drawn into the heroine’s secret world. This experience is sometimes broken, however, by an awkward image that doesn’t quite convince – “I began to circle around the perimeter of the room like one of those vacuum cleaners used in swimming pools” – or by a description that is too detailed to make sense of upon first reading, such as Thompson’s description of the thaumatrope Ramona makes.

But perhaps the most problematic aspect of this novel is that the reader is left with a sense of absence. We generally expect that a novel will have a turning point, after which nothing remains the same and all events funnel towards the inevitable ending. Even if that happens before the novel begins (which may be the case here), we do expect an ending. And although Thompson’s portrait of Ramona is quite convincing, the reader’s inability to understand why this character is so passive makes it all the more difficult to sympathise with Ramona. In short, Thompson’s narrative “snapshot” is clear in detail, but it lacks emotional pull. mRb

Adriana Palanca is a Montreal writer and translator.

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