Going underground

Visiting Elizabeth

By Poppy Wilkinson

A review of Visiting Elizabeth by Gisele Villeneuve

Published on April 1, 2004

Visiting Elizabeth
Gisele Villeneuve

XYZ Publishing
$24.95
paper
384pp
1-894852-08-7

Je suis en deuil,” we are told on the first page of Visiting Elizabeth. Even those who are only fuctionally bilingual will know from the start that Elizabeth is dead and that our narrator is in mourning. Ariane Claude, a Francophone girl of 19, sits in Montreal’s Parc Lafontaine, hemming the dirty white skirt she was wearing when she saw Elizabeth killed. Ariane remarks that she must look like a gypsy, with her bare feet, her backpack and her dirty skirt.

But Ariane is not a gypsy. She lives in an apartment of fading decadence on rue Sherbrooke, with her hard-working single mother. Ariane becomes fast friends with Elizabeth, a sensual, middle-aged photographer. Elizabeth and Ariane have planned a trip around the world and on the day of their scheduled departure, Elizabeth is struck by a car and killed. It is 1969, almost the turn of the decade. There is an undeniable feeling that things are about to change.

Visiting Elizabeth is a book without a clear chronology or trajectory. While we wade through Ariane’s cluttered memories of Elizabeth, we are also flitting in and out of two languages. The book is written primarily in English but certain phrases and thoughts are expressed in French, without translation.

Villeneuve has written a book about reinvention. That the book is based in Montreal, takes place in the late 1960s, and is written in two languages is clearly no accident. Visiting Elizabeth focuses on the friendship between two women, but it also comments on the growing fervour of Quebec in that era. Ariane is a seamstress; she is always re-stitching, remaking and tearing up what is old in order to reinvent. She makes a velvet coat out of her mother’s antique drapes. She tailors her late father’s suit for Elizabeth, happily saving it from the moths. She even takes apart her mother’s wedding dress, remaking it as her famous white gypsy skirt.

In the process of her lacing and tearing of fabrics, Ariane is also reinventing herself. These are the Expo years, when long-haired ‘yoots’ roam the city and revolution is brewing in the cafes. Ariane (nee Claudette Lalancette) changes her name, takes the Pill, and enjoys having sex “no strings attached.” Ariane is finding new voices to speak in and new friends to speak with. She says, “with Elizabeth I could speak, meme si c’etait en anglais, all of us, Quebecois, we never learned to speak, we don’t know the names of things…”

Visiting Elizabeth is a delicately woven story from a pocket of time. Villeneuve captures an era and place masterfully in her feminine prose. She plays with the art of storytelling, in the recounting and adapting of l’histoire ancienne. When Ariane’s uncle tells her the story of her estranged father’s death, she remarks, “The passage of time allows him to tell the story. Time transforms human tragedy into le theatre de l’absurde. Et la vie continue.

Like the process of mourning, the narrative moves slowly. The book sews together moments and snatches of graceful dialogue in both languages. This is not a read for those in a hurry; it is a circuitous and winding narrative. Despite this, the book is clearly going somewhere. There is a rumbling sense of momentum throughout, a feeling of moving forward. “Where?” Ariane asks. “We don’t know. But forward. Peut-etre, to go forward, we must go underground a little.” mRb

Poppy Wilkinson is managing editor at Maisonneuve magazine.

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