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February 22, 2015

And the Birds Rained Down by Jocelyn Saucier

and-the-birds-rained-downI approached And the Birds Rained Down, by Jocelyn Saucier, translated by Rhonda Mullins, the opposite of how I found Raziel Reid’s novel, When Everything Feels Like the MoviesThe latter with so much hype, all my expectations, but I knew nothing about Saucier’s novel except that it had won several awards when published in its original French. And this is typical. Here is where the Canada Reads theme of “breaking barriers” first becomes relevant to And the Birds Rained Down. As critic J.C. Sutcliffe writes in her article, “On Not Reading Books from Quebec“, French Canadian Literature is barely on the radar of most English Canadians, French Canadian Literature barely accessible outside of Quebec. Except for the publishers—small publishers in particular, like Goose Lane, Anansi, and Coach House (who published this one)—who translate these books into English. Not so much breaking barriers as building bridges from one place to another.

And the Birds Rained Down is a quiet book, a tidy book, a comforting book. The most comforting book you’ve ever read about mass destruction, trauma, mental illness, suicide, marijuana, and love. It begins with a photographer arriving deep in the forest in Northern Ontario at a clearing where a stream cascades into volcanic rock. She’s come to interview a survivor of devastating fires that had taken place nearly a century before, but she’s come too late. He’s died, of natural causes, she’s assured by that two old men with whom the man she’d come to see, Boychuck, had created a community away from the world, their only connection to it two pot farmers. She’s been travelling the province photographing survivors of the fire, documenting their experiences. And while the other two men can’t contribute to her project, she’s intrigued by their company and drawn to return. And the photographer is not the only disrupter to this bucolic idyll. Not long after her departure, one of the pot farmers shows up with his Great Aunt who has been her whole life in mental institutions and refuses to return. Her arrival in the community changes the dynamic forever.

It’s not so much what the story is about, but how it’s told. And the Birds Rained Down is the kind of book you’d expect from a setting deep in the woods at the end of a road by a waterfall. It’s otherworldly with many elements of fairytales. An all-seeing narrator guides us through the book’s various sections from different characters’ points of view, though we are not so guided that there is not mystery here, or surprise The novel’s first paragraph is, “In which people go missing, a death-pact adds spice to life, and the lure of the forest and of love makes life worth living. The story seems far-fetched, but there are witnesses, so its truth cannot be doubted. To doubt it would be to deprive us of an improbable other world that offers refuge to special beings.” 

This is the most different of the other Canada Reads books I’ve read this year, quieter in its intentions, subtler in its message, more playful and nuanced (though this makes me think of “Like life is always fucking subtle,” and how sometimes books have to be huge and devastating to get their points across). A mysterious book that’s lyrical, lovely, and rich with story and stories. It doesn’t really do anything except be a book (and it does that so well), which is a political statement in itself I think.

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