Saturday, August 15, 2020

WITMonth Day 15 | Kuessipan by Naomi Fontaine | Review

I rarely remember how a book gets on my radar, but when I find a small gem that doesn't seem to have gotten much attention, I find myself wishing I could remember who deserves that credit. How did I first hear of Naomi Fontaine, a French-Canadian First Nations writer? What made me look up Kuessipan (tr. from French by David Homel)? What eventually led me to actually buy it? Even though it was all within the past year or so, I no longer remember.

Yet I'm grateful to whoever it was, dear anonymous reader. Kuessipan is a tiny book that I could easily have not connected with, and I wonder if I was almost expecting to not enjoy it. I have often found myself struggling to enjoy vignette-style novellas, feeling as though they're neither the style of poetry that I typically like nor fiction-y enough. Kuessipan was teed up for my disappointment, and yet. And yet! I liked it a lot.

Part of what worked, I think, was that I ended up reading Kuessipan as an almost wholly poetic book. Not poetry, but poetic. Something in its rhythm didn't feel like it was trying to build a structured narrative, nor was it especially loose. Each vignette felt well and intentionally crafted, with care and detail. The pieces flowed into each other naturally. The book - generally speaking - flowed, and this perhaps is also what made it feel so much more poetic than a standard novella. 

There's a part of me that also wonders if Kuessipan simply doesn't feel more consequential than the average vignette-style novella. Stark, clean writing isn't a rarity for novellas (isn't it kind of the point?), nor is plotlessness with powerful resonance, but I feel most novellas don't really manage to tell an epic in such sparsity. Fontaine's writing covers so much and so many in a way that makes it feel like a much longer book than it really is (and it really is tiny, barely 99 pages). Part of Kuessipan is a coming-of-age story, part is a cultural history, part is a contemporary snapshot, and yet these different pieces fit together smoothly. Fontaine includes many different pieces of Innu life (based on her own experiences, I have to assume), whether in describing community life or traditional history. Some are painful - substance abuse is a recurring theme - and others almost wistful, casting their eye toward things like salmon fishing or hunting or nomadic wandering. Fontaine writes of young motherhood, childhood, and leaving home with the same sensitivity as in describing death, old age, or memory. 

Kuessipan does not feel like a linear work. As I write this review, I find myself flipping back through different vignettes and segments. The poetic nature of the writing means that these don't feel out of place in any order, even though I quite liked how things fit together and grew when read in sequence. But something about the out-of-time nature of the work makes it feel like it has a slightly longer impact. Novellas and poetry can often get lost in one's memory, if only because the power is in the emotional response. Kuessipan certainly doesn't feel like it has the strongest plot-based hook, but the clarity of its writing and storytelling is remarkably memorable. Even without clinging to specific phrases or segments, I have found myself thinking about the book quite a bit in the months since I read it. Kuessipan is yet another in a long line of books that deserves far more attention than its received. I - for my part - eagerly await the opportunity to read more of Fontaine's writing in English translation in the near future.

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