The Pagan Nuptials Of Julia
The back cover of Keith Henderson’s new story collection might turn off a few readers, or even attract the wrong ones. The reader is told that the book “chronicles the lives of ordinary English-speaking Quebeckers.” Quebec anglophones are referred to as “a neglected Canadian minority that saw its treasured world sacrificed by statist deceit.”
These lines won’t surprise anyone who knows of Henderson’s history as leader of Quebec’s Equality Party from 1993 to 2003: he has long been associated with the language of politics. But these nine stories aren’t just about Quebec. They’re about families, roots, art, humanism, and relationships. And the prevailing theme of the book has more to do with religion than with politics.
The idea of Eden, for example, figures in two of the stories. “The Garden of Earthly Delights” is a clever look at how we defile our own corners of paradise. The story is also a simple lesson about how one can sometimes search one’s soul for answers that are right under one’s nose. The Eden theme reappears in “After the Referendum,” this time with one of Henderson’s few direct references to Quebec politics. A group of anglophone cégep teachers rent a country house for a party but are asked to leave by their Francophone host when they make fun of the Parti Québécois. Banished, the sinners skulk away and there is a sense that things have changed forever.
Politics makes another brief appearance in “The Denial,” about a man looking back on his childhood in the north end of Montreal. The story is primarily about a summer of fun and mischief, but the final scene raises the notion of Montrealers sanitizing their English upbringing. The narrator, in a mood to reminisce, runs into a stone wall when his friend, sounding like a colonial Brit wary of upsetting the natives, says, “Life moves on. Got to adjust, old man.”
Religion is examined from a modern perspective in the title story. Julia Micheli, a Montrealer born in Rome, travels to Italy with her new boyfriend. Embraced by her many relatives, she arrives, in the most Catholic of countries, at a “pagan” definition of marriage: something she calls “A simple public declaration that a couple is a couple, while those close to them give blessing.” In “The Gods of Public Transport,” the hand of Providence is seen in life’s random events as “the funny way gods declared themselves.”
Henderson, who teaches English at Vanier College, is known more for politics than literature, but he has written two novels in addition to a collection of political essays. Although he might be a wistful anglo, “The Pagan Nuptials of Julia” doesn’t reflect the angry anglo he is often assumed to be. The book is an interesting well-written collection of stories told from a variety of viewpoints-male, female, young, old, married, single, divorced. Readers who buy it hoping to read a passionate defence of a downtrodden minority will be disappointed. What’s more unfortunate is that those looking for a good book might read the phrase about a neglected Canadian majority and “statist deceit” and put Henderson’s stories back on the shelf. That would be a missed opportunity for both author and reader. mRb