Vandal Love

Vandal Love

By Ami Sands Brodoff

A review of Vandal Love by D. Y. Béchard

Published on May 1, 2006

Vandal Love
D. Y. Béchard

Doubleday Canada
$29.95
cloth
345pp
0-385-66051-0

“If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance,” said the playwright George Bernard Shaw, and author D.Y. Béchard does just that in his enveloping debut. A generational novel, Vandal Love centres on the French-Canadian Hervé family as they wander from the harsh realities of their Quebec home to Les États, struggling to find out who they are, where they belong, and how to carve out a place in the world. Spanning the early 1900s to the present, Béchard’s ambitious story offers a refreshing change from the traditional bildungsroman.

The Hervé family skeleton is a genetic quirk, evolving from years of hardship, which causes their children to be born either giants or runts. “It was clockwork, enormous child then changeling. Villagers saw and feared this ….They feared even the little ones, frail, scurrying beneath those hulking siblings.”

In keeping with his mythical use of opposites and doubles, Béchard calls his paterfamilias Hervé Hervé and bisects his novel into two books, one following the giants’ line, the other the runts’. Book One centres on the poignant story of the nearly seven-foot Jude Hervé, “born with a flat nose and the glassy gaze of a punch-drunk fighter.” True to the family curse, Jude comes into the world with an infinitesimal little sister named Isa-Marie in his arms. His early life is devoted to loving and protecting her as he walks to school or church, carrying little Isa on his shoulders or clumping along behind her. Isa-Marie is as delicate and sensitive as Jude is strong and brutish, as spiritual as he is carnal. Brother and sister belong together, in fact form two halves of a whole.

When Isa-Marie dies during a harsh Northern winter, Jude’s heart is broken. He flees and reinvents himself as a boxer in Georgia and Louisiana. Later he escapes that brutal life with his baby daughter, named for his lost little sister, and attempts to build a life with yet another new identity.

Béchard’s evocation of landscape and its link to self is haunting and beautiful. Displaced, Jude “thought of the village, the St. Lawrence. That world had ceased to exist, though at times he recalled it so clearly, without him, that it seemed to be he was the one who’d vanished.”

Book Two follows the line of the runts, who discover that their longing lies in seeking faith– whether in love, land, or God. Like the giants, they are wanderers and seekers. François searches for the identity of his missing father, while his son Harvey flees from the contemporary world into spiritual quests.

Béchard links the giants’ and runts’ sagas through the language of myth. The tension between opposing forces, and the twinning link between them, is a constant thread: big/small, strong/weak, carnal/spiritual, foreign/familiar, lost/found. This interplay of opposites creates a layered contemporary fairytale, mesmerizing and powerful.

The shadow side of Béchard’s breadth is his occasional over-reliance on summary: one misses the immediacy of the fully fleshed-out and dramatized scene, with characters speaking in their own voices. As a result, characters from one generation risk blurring into the next; motivations are at times baffling or undeveloped. Still Vandal Love is a moving novel about universal longings: for a self one can recognise, a place to belong, and a loved one with whom one can truly be, without inflating oneself to be seen, or making oneself small enough to disappear. mRb

Ami Sands Brodoff's latest book is the collection of stories, The Sleep of Apples, a finalist for the International Book Awards, and forthcoming as an audible book with ECW Press. She is at work on a new novel, Treasures That Prevail.  

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