The Coral Bride, by Roxanne Bouchard – book review

Round our way we loved We were the Salt of the Sea and we’ve wasted no time in making a return trip to the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec. The Coral Bride has a slightly different feel: it’s longer, the writing feels a little tighter, the characters remain in many cases delightfully scatty but some of the whimsy has been abandoned. No longer are we promised a ‘thriller’: the promise is of a ‘mystery’. But choosing this book because you fancy a mystery is like going to a Piet Mondrian exhibition to look at squares. You’ll get what you came for and you’ll have missed the point entirely.

Books featured recently on this blog have had a lot to say about the places in which they are set, whether downtown Bergen, an island for pilgrims or the wildest midlands of Iceland. Here we’ve the sea, and we’re consistently challenged both through lyrical prose but also overtly by Roxanne Bouchard’s characters: do we understand the sea, do we love the sea and DO WE UNDERSTAND THE SEA. No, really, do we? One of the characters is explicitly set an exercise in this regard: he fails, ‘watching the sea like an accountant’. But there is the possibility of becoming a person of the sea. A strong strand running throughout the novel is the extent to which character traits are inherited, created or even developed through misunderstandings. The Coral Bride will invite you to consider your relationships with your own location. Millions of words have been spilled in recent years about citizens of somewhere and nowhere. This book shows how the subject should be explored.

For all its dreamy qualities and time spent dancing, cooking, eating and generally making merry, there’s a lot of tension and conflict in this book: between couples, generations and families. Different concepts of loyalty are presented and compared. The Roberts and the Cyr families have bad blood that goes back generations. This is emnity on an epic scale: Montague and Capulet, Jets and Sharks, Crystal Palace and Brighton; it is never unthinking and Bouchard has various characters attempt to analyse it and explain it. She uses contrasting conflicts to bounce off each other and it’s deftly done. I’m particularly attracted to her use of sushi to illustrate a rejection of morality on a monochrome scale:

‘Nothing’s black or white, I know that, I know that. There are plenty of grey areas.’

She shook her head. ‘It’s not all shades of grey, detective. There are thousands of colours out there. Prison guards are the only ones who see your shades of grey…over time [Clément] has come to see colours other than red.’

Deft also is the characterisation. Bouchard has an eye for the absurd and she gives her people a huge amount of freedom; those who are not involved in the feuding and unhappiness are generally comfortable in their skin, from copper Joannie Robichaud who dreams of being kidnapped and seduced by a rich drug baron, through Thérèse Roch the spectacularly unhelpful receptionist to Constable Érik Lefebvre and his idiosyncratic filing system. Even Sébastien, Moralès’s troubled and emotionally tortured son seems plausible in this dreamy coastal location. I think that the slightly improbable (and occasionally problematic) characters work because at the same tine we are provided with a rich seam of sharp and detailed observations on topics from toxic submission in relationships to good hospital user design. The truth underpinning these observations carries us along quite happily. I’d like to think that Bouchard is affectionate towards these creations. Certainly sympathetic is David Warriner’s fine job of translation.

We were the Salt of the Sea was almost impossible to characterise. The Coral Bride sees Roxanne Bouchard develop as a writer, refine her style but remain utterly ambitious about what a novel can achieve. And she does it in full colour. Lovely.

You can get The Coral Bride from the Cafethinking bookshop.

Thanks to Anne Cater for the blog tour invitation and to Orenda Books for the review copy.

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