Pieced together with the help of a private detective, Suzanne is a fictionalized telling of the life of Suzanne Meloche (Barbeau) by her granddaughter, Anais Barbeau-Lavalette.
Suzanne is the second book I’ve read of the five shortlisted for the 2019 Canada Reads competition. With the first being By Chance Alone (a memoir written by a concentration camp detainee during the second World War), whatever book I chose to read next would have a tough time knocking Max Eisen’s story from the top of my list. Luckily, Suzanne was totally different in both tone and structure. This helped it to stand alone rather than try to follow the prior book in my eyes.
The majority of the novel takes place during Suzanne’s time as a member of the Automatistes, a group of artistic dissidents living in Montreal during the mid-20th century. Depending on who you asked at the time, the group was either revered or hated for their heavy criticism of the Catholic Church. As time moves on, having married a prominent member (Marcel Barbeau), Suzanne is forever intertwined with the group, so they pop back in from time to time. I enjoyed this the most as a lot of what followed felt a bit rushed.
From there, the story will take Suzanne all over the world from Brussels to England to the United States. Given how reclusive Suzanne became from her family, it’s hard to tell what, if anything, is based on actual events that occurred. The author is quick to point out that her version of Suzanne was crafted through documents recovered following Suzanne’s death, investigations and stories told to her by those who knew Suzanne best. Given all she had, the novel is the result of filling in the gaps with what the author portrayed her grandmother to be like.
With that said, the real star here is the prose of Anais Barbeau-Lavalette (translated wonderfully by Rhonda Mullins). At points, it isn’t so much what’s happening, but how it’s told. I believe that in anyone else’s hands, it may not have been as compelling. Barbeau-Lavalette’s skills help to push this book into the “one book to move you” category of Canada Reads by crafting a memorable exploration of a life lived on the outside of normalcy.