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Pickle Me This

November 30, 2009

Help Me, Jacques Cousteau by Gil Adamson

On the back of Gil Adamson’s success with The Outlander (a popular novel even before it became a serious contender for Canada Reads 2009), House of Anansi has republished her first work of fiction, Help Me, Jacques Cousteau (published in 2000 by The Porcupine’s Quill). Which is kind of strange, actually, seeing as Help Me, Jacques Cousteau has little in common with The Outlander— they’re siblings a decade apart, after all. Somehow, I just don’t see Nicholas Campbell getting behind this one, but the very good news is that I can. While The Outlander was not quite my cup of tea, I delighted in this story collection.

Essential to note, however, that Help Me, Jacques Cousteau is a linked story collection, which follows a character called Hazel from young childhood into her late teen years. And though episodic, these stories do come together to create a narrative arc that would satisfy a reader with a craving for a novel. A little bit like Emma Richler’s Sister Crazy, but not quite as leaden in the end, and with a dash of the spirit of Adrian Mole, what Help Me… has in common with The Outlander is prose constructed with a poet’s deft hand, attention to each sentence, and the paragraphs. Rhythm, cadence, alliteration, precise imagery and perfect word choice. Two sentences stuck together like these ones: “My mother is physically fantastic. She’s long, tall, elastic.”

But what Help Me… also has is wry humour, and a remarkable narrator in Hazel, who is blessed with remarkable powers of perception. Her voice is an anchor in this text of eccentric characters and bizarre goings-on, a voice unchanging as the world around her spirals out of control. This unchangingness works, however, because what does change are the things that Hazel perceives with her remarkable powers as she grows older– eventually, her parents’ fallibility, the strain in their marriage, that things fall apart, that no one (including herself) is quite who they’re supposed to be.

Adamson attributes to Hazel a peculiar deficiency of long-term memory which keeps the collection from being an exercise in nostalgia. Also notable, that Hazel is not the stereotypical misfit, in that she has friendships (however fraught, but this is high school) and boys willing to make out her (plenty of them actually, which is a novel plot device for a poetry-loving teen) so that we’re not taken down that familiar road that always ends with bulimia and somebody’s initials carved in a thigh.

So though its formula is tried and tested, Help Me… is infused with originality. Hazel’s family and her neighbours come to life through her eyes– her fantastic tall mother, strong enough to open any spaghetti jar; her brother and his solar curtains; her experience pet-sitting for a neighbour in a house of tropical fish; a grandfather who frequently turns up unexpectedly, and makes himself comfortable in a bath; a bevy of uncles and aunties; a bed full of cousins; a father who rewires the house when he’s anxious.

Help Me… begins with an epigraph from the Talking Heads’ song “Heaven”: “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.” Hazel’s life, on the other hand, is a place where something always does, and though Hazel might desire a bit of a reprieve, at least we get the good fortune of reading all about it.

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