Spoiler Alert

The Laws of the Skies

By Danielle Barkley

A review of The Laws of the Skies by Grégoire Courtois

Published on July 6, 2019

Grégoire Courtois’s novel The Laws of the Skies conducts a visceral experiment with both narrative and human nature. It removes all prospect of hope from the outset, then creates a spectacle of waiting for forewarned deaths to occur, rather than generating suspense about whether or not they will.

A group of twelve six-year-olds and three adult chaperones head into the woods for an overnight camping trip; the jacket blurb states starkly that “None of them make it out alive.” By the end of the first page, the narrator has affirmed in equally bald terms that “The children were on their way. They would never return.”

The Laws of the Skies
Grégoire Courtois
Translated by Rhonda Mullins

Coach House Books
$19.95
paper
148pp
9781552453872

In the face of this premise, why read on? And moreover, why might readers find themselves not only reading, but compulsively hoping they have misunderstood, and that something beyond the grotesque is waiting to be revealed? Rhonda Mullins’s translation is fluid and compulsively readable, the plotting concise and compressed within a time frame of less than forty-eight hours. Courtois forces a confrontation between a reader’s pleasure in the prose and narrative propulsion and his or her revulsion by the subject matter. I was forced to close the novel and sit with the question of what it meant that I had just spent nearly 150 pages waiting for deaths I had been promised from the outset. There had been pleasure in the waiting – and against all warnings to the contrary, there had been hope. The hope makes what might otherwise be unbearable possible to read, but it also makes the conclusion even more devastating.

The experience of hope is calibrated by the construction of a world where the faint possibility of justice still lingers. The deaths depicted in the novel alternate between the slaughter of innocence and moments of poetic justice where a death seems to be delivered as a form of punishment to a predator. Either way, there is an element of spectacle and shock to many of the deaths: rarely are they quick, and rarely are readers spared a confrontation with their graphic and meticulous representation. The longest and most explicit death scene is doled out to the character who commits most of the novel’s atrocities. The narrator takes pains to specify that “we will try to be as precise as possible, so that you can more clearly picture the scene that follows, so that you can fully experience what it would mean to be immobilized, tied up, powerless, suffering.”

Just before violence erupts, the teacher supervising the children recounts a fable with a grim and bloody climax, giving rise to the novel’s title through an allusion to natural laws being enforced. The spectre of nature hovers over the entire text: is this what we become when left unchecked? Is innocence simply the obverse of brutality? The adult characters are shown with varying degrees of moral ambiguity, but with only one exception, the children are kind, helpful, and capable of clinging to a basic form of community amidst chaos. That the children both live and die in some suspended state prior to full knowledge of good and evil seems to make little difference in the end. When the narrator explains that “a child doesn’t die like you, an adult or an old person reading these lines. […] They die the same way they get lice or a skinned knee,” it feels more damning than comforting. mRb

Danielle Barkley holds a PhD from the Department of English at McGill University. She has taught writing, rhetoric, and critical analysis, and currently works as a graduate career educator at the University of British Columbia.

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