The Extraordinary Garden

By X. I. Selene

A review of The Extraordinary Garden by Francois Gravel

Published on October 1, 2005

The Extraordinary Garden
Francois Gravel

Cormorant books
$22.95
paper
200pp
1-896951-53-8

François Gravel’s most remarkable contribution may not in fact be his Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature for Deux heures et demie avant Jasmine (1991), but rather his apparent will to awaken dormant and often ignored readerships – such as university-educated Québécois males, of whom 42% in 1999 read very few or no books. The Extraordinary Garden and Adieu, Betty Crocker, novels two and three of the Fillion Family Saga, are so well adapted to the needs of South Shore-dwelling, university-educated fathers of the Baby Boom generation that one wonders if Gravel is really on a one-man mission to combat statistics like these. Short, well-paced chapters, lively dialogue, plenty of familiar Greater Montreal landmarks and a colloquial, unpretentious style make these novels effortless and gratifying reading for the arena, parking lot, bank queue, and chalet.

Aside from the rare allusion, each book of the Fillion Family Saga stands as an independent work of fiction. The narrator of The Extraordinary Garden, Marc-André Fillion, is a bureaucrat and family man who falls in love with Josée, a married school librarian and mother of two. The novel naturalistically portrays the negotiation of extramarital desire in a suburban milieu. In Adieu, Betty Crocker, Marc-André’s older brother Benoît Fillion finds himself strangely affected by their Aunt Arlette’s death. Interviewing cousins and siblings, Benoît tries to find cracks in his aunt’s uncannily perfect Boucherville existence, but slowly discovers his own foibles. Gravel explores the darker aspects of suburban life without criticising it. In this apparently safe and bland universe, strong emotions are channelled into mundane household objects: guilt, attachment, loss, desire, and envy condense and coalesce, taking the form of a drool-soaked ball, deck of cards, bus map, carport, or red vinyl kitchen chair. Gravel’s skill at casting new light on the everyday secures his position as a literary writer of some substance.

Despite the eerily nostalgic descriptions of suburbia, one cannot help but think that The Extraordinary Garden and Adieu, Betty Crocker are written for the reluctant (male) reader. All three of the Fillion Family Saga books brim with literate male role models: real men who read, write, and tell stories, their virility undiminished. From Louis Fillion’s enthusiasm for Jack London and Philippe Fillion’s prolific war correspondence in Fillion et frères (A Good Life in English ) to Benoît’s novel-writing in Adieu, Betty Crocker, men’s narratives abound. Rooted in the oral tradition, the Fillion books promote the idea that everyone is a raconteur (and potential reader!), whether school librarian or hockey dad. mRb

X. I. Selene is a Montreal writer.

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