• As Montrealer Catherine Day sets foot in a remote fishing village and starts asking around about her birth mother, the body of a woman dredges up in a fisherman’s nets. Not just any woman, though: Marie Garant, an elusive, nomadic sailor and unbridled beauty who once tied many a man’s heart in knots. Detective Sergeant Joaquin Morales, newly drafted to the area from the suburbs of Montreal, barely has time to unpack his suitcase before he’s thrown into the deep end of the investigation. On Quebec’s outlying Gaspé Peninsula, the truth can be slippery, especially down on the fishermen’s wharves. Interviews drift into idle chit-chat, evidence floats off with the tide and the truth lingers in murky waters. It’s enough to make DS Morales reach straight for a large whisky…

As an avid reader of crime fiction in translation for its more lyrical and considered look at the human psyche , and highly atmospheric use of place, French Canadian thriller We Were The Salt Of The Sea, ticked many boxes for me. Roxanne Bouchard’s beautifully lyrical appreciation of the sea and its ever changing moods, provided a wonderful backdrop to this tale of human frailty, and the unstinting shadow of the past on this small coastal community.

There’s a wonderful quote in the book,  which to me summed up completely the psyche of the host of colourful and interesting characters that inhabit this book- “The people I met here were living in the past, in the nostalgia of a bygone era they had all conspired to revere as it had been. The only beauty in the present was the memory of yesterday, and nothing else would ever compare…” As the story is firmly rooted in past events, and how the character of Marie Garant has loomed so large in the lives of the residents, there is this unerring feeling of the past controlling and reverberating so strongly in the present. Of all the individuals that Catherine Day encounters in her quest to discover more about her birth mother, Garant seems to have played a significant role be it as a conduit for love, jealousy, violence and death. I liked the way that we never really achieved a complete picture of Garant, as everyone’s different opinions of her, and interactions with her are refracted like a prism through their differing accounts. That’s not to say that we don’t ultimately care about how she met her watery fate, and I rather enjoyed this sense of still not knowing her intimately by the end of the book. I felt there was an almost symbiosis with Garant and the sea, as she seemed to be a woman of mercurial and unpredictable behaviour leaving a trail of anger, regret and sorrow in her wake.

Although I wasn’t particularly enamoured with the character of Catherine, as I felt the author was maybe trying too hard to imbue her with the same qualities as the mother she had never met, I thought the surrounding cast were superb. I was strongly reminded of other French thrillers I have read set in coastal communities, and the balance that they achieve between the more quirky and serious protagonists was perfectly mirrored here. There’s the salty old sea dogs, the too talkative bartender, the shyster running the funeral parlour, jealous women, and into the mix the hapless detective Morales, with his Mexican roots, and embarrassing midlife crisis. As I said the balance between moments of heart wrenching emotion, and dark humour, embodied in Bouchard’s depiction of these people was consistently pleasing, and I felt very much like I was in a small boat on calm, and then stormy waters, as the mood of the book chopped and changed.

As a lover of the more naturalistic writing of authors such as Annie Proulx and Ron Rash, I loved the way that Bouchard showed such an incisive and lyrical edge to her writing in her depictions of the sea. Whether as a murder scene, as a source of making a living, as a route to a different life, or simply as the ever present force in these people’s existence, you feel its influence at every turn, and there are some truly beautiful descriptions permeating the book throughout. This sense of the poetic adds another level of enjoyment to the book, and through the translation of David Warriner, I was quite bewitched at times by the language and imagery the author employs. A very satisfying read, and recommended for those who like their crime fiction with a more literary edge.

(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

 

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