A big cliche when describing this book or that is that it’s a page turner. Whisper of the Seals, the third in Roxanne Bouchard’s Quebecois series, is more of a heart breaker. About two thirds of the way through I’m weighing up whether to skip to the end – a normally unheard of practice – to check whether a key character makes it. Bouchard is known for her dreamy, poetic prose (as before, expertly translated by David Warriner), but poetry is not a fluffy artform. Offer yourself up to the elements and an ethereal style isn’t going to save you.
Seals is a a book of high contrast. For the first half of the book, in two parallel stories, there’s a woman holding her own among coke-addicts, rapists and smugglers on a seal hunting trip in which survival is not guaranteed, while a different kind of cruise provides fireworks and the potential for fumbled encounters for cross-country skiers. But both Simone Lord – a woman fighting to thrive in what men think of as the archetypal man’s world – and Joaquin Moralès – a detective coming to terms with his divorce – have a central thing in common. Whatever their immediate surroundings, each is operating outside their comfort zone. They have both to drive themselves, push beyond their limit and open themselves up to the elements and to their fellow human beings.
That first half is packed with tension and malice. There’s an awful lot of waiting around, but very little actual relaxation, even for those supposedly on holiday. But then seals are found, and a link between the two storylines is made, and then there’s a race against time involving helicopters and intervention teams and retribution. Things have consequences.
Bouchard manages to provide us with a world where both Lord and Moralès can have some of their minds on matters of the heart, but where actions can have tragic repercussions. She outlines to us how and why seals are hunted and provides realistic descriptions of that hunting, and the resulting killing. She is realistic about the need for such hunting, and environmental activists are not portrayed unquestioningly.
You do kind of need to know a bit about boats to follow exactly what’s going on. But I didn’t mind that I didn’t. No one knows everything, even though they may be technical experts in handling seal skins and carcasses, or understand how to smuggle high grade cocaine across Canada. On the boat itself, the crew hide their individual agendas from each other, and there’s a sense of having to try to understand, which adds to the discomfort. We are all out of our depth.
There is not a happy ending: Bouchard replicates to the reader the hard right hook and knee to the face that Moralès dishes out to a particularly unpleasant character. But as the fog and mists rise, we know that we’ve been exposed to something beautiful: something that reminds us of humanity’s powerlessness when next to the elements, but our ability even through that vulnerability to forge a life well lived.
Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy and to Anne Cater for the blog tour invitation.