Synopses & Reviews
In this wholly original novel alive with misfortune and magic, Michel Basilières uncovers a Montreal not seen in any other English-Canadian work: a forgotten blue-collar neighbourhood in between the two solitudes. Gothic, outrageous, yet tender and wise, Black Bird
is as liberating as the dreams of its wayward characters, and as gripping as the insurgencies that split its heart.
The Desouches have inhabited the same run-down house in working-class Montreal for years, much to the dismay of their landlord, and its ramshackle architecture perfectly mirrors that of the eccentric family living inside. Grandfather is a sour old grave-robber who relishes in the anguish he causes his wife and family. Uncle shares the same occupation, and otherwise spends much of his time drunk and alone. Neither is looking forward to the winter, which means lost work, due to the frozen ground. Father doesnt share their gruesome job, but comes up with his own schemes anyway. Mother lies down to sleep away her grief when her father dies, and does not wake up for months. A plain French woman named Aline marries into the family, having been fooled by Grandfathers smooth ways, only to find herself alienated in a household that chooses to speak English. Marie, the granddaughter and an FLQ terrorist, could share her language — she certainly resents that a part of her is English — but is too caught up in her politics and her anger to get involved. It falls to Maries twin brother, Jean-Baptiste, to play occasional translator, though as always hed prefer to be upstairs in his attic room reading literature and writing awful poetry. Throw in a judgemental pet crow, a confused ghost, a mad doctor, peculiar neighbours, maverick policemen and the walking dead, and youve got the makings of the ultimate domestic drama, Montreal-style.
When an FLQ bomb set by Marie kills not only the expected strangers but her anglo maternal grandfather (what was he doing out for a smoked-meat sandwich at that hour, anyway?) it sets the family off on a notably bad run of luck. Then again, not many stretches would stand out as stellar for this peculiar group. Which points to one of the wonderful truths that Basilières allows to guide his characters: that life is crummy and a struggle just as often as its not, but that doesnt keep us from wanting to enjoy it in our own ways and hoping for a better tomorrow. As in life, there is a level of coincidence here that is too uncanny to not be believable. When the drunken premier runs down a man in the street, it is not only Maries boyfriend and fellow activist who is killed, but the crooked cops bring the fresh corpse to Grandfathers door to be suitably dealt with. When some of Maries separatist pamphlets get mixed up with Jean-Baptistes poetry chapbooks, a prison term and a kidnapping are among the unexpected results. When Grandfather loses an eye, his vision improves. And as events spiral out of control, it seems that some of the Desouches are at their most content.
With Black Bird, Michel Basilières has written a comic noir, a disturbing and hilarious study of how the October Crisis and the question of Canadian nationalism play out through the disjointed relationships within one family. And as with all of the best fiction, here the facts of our history do not get in the way of the truth, or of telling a good story. Compared to such disparate novels as One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Corrections, and Two Solitudes, Black Bird marks the fiction debut of a masterful and thoroughly entertaining storyteller.
About the Author
Michel Basilières was ten years old and growing up in Montreal during the October Crisis. He still remembers the tensions vividly — though he was busy preparing for Halloween at the time. But the events and fears that effected everyone in Montreal have stayed with him, as those defining sorts of memories that take root in childhood. Not even the holiday festivities were exempt: in 1970, the Basilières children were taken by their father to the anglophone community of Westmount to trick-or-treat, as opposed to their usual route downtown. As Michel has said in one interview, “We went trick-or-treating to houses, all of which were guarded by Canadian troops…. He showed us the people with wealth and power and influence were guarded at their very doors and very homes. That made a deep impression on me.” From then on, Michel knew that this was a story he wanted to tell, and you could say that in those early experiences was the genesis of Black Bird.
Michel Basilières has commented often on the lack of attention English Canada pays (whether in literature or memory) to the October Crisis and the issues at its heart, events that are so central to Quebec consciousness and to our national identity. “Whats hardest for people today to understand is the fear many people felt, both French and English…. When the crisis finally erupted, it became the focus of world attention. And we were invaded by the army. We were under martial law, and we knew that anyone could be arrested and detained without charge on the least pretext. And that happened. 500 artists, writers, journalists, musicians, poets and professors were rounded up and incarcerated. People dont seem to understand when I make this point about Canada, the country I grew up in: we sent the army to arrest the intellectuals. We had always been taught this kind of thing was the brutal act of repressive dictatorships.”
For Michel, language is not only a factor in the defining of Quebec, or of Canada, but has been so in his own life. Growing up in Montreal with a French father and an anglophone mother, he has always felt somewhat separate from the two cultures — as does his character, Jean-Baptiste. Michels language is English, which has always added to the distance: “My name, for example, has been a constant problem, to tell you the truth. In Montreal everyone expects me to be perfectly fluent in French and theyre surprised when Im not. In Toronto, people think my name is Michael. Or, if theyre writing to me, they think Im a woman.”
Much of the humour of Black Bird comes from Michels conscious effort to have fun while writing. “I was aware of how difficult it was to be a writer because I had met so much resistance along the way. I realized that, given that the chances of publication were so slim, I might end up with only a manuscript in the drawer…. I was really just trying to amuse myself.” Throughout the writing process, hed tell his own jokes, and when they show up on the page they add a richness to his portrayal of Montreal — and some of its odder inhabitants. Michels experience as a bookseller gave him a realistic view of his chances of being published, even by a small publisher, but then his hopes were surpassed: Black Bird was discovered in the slush pile at Knopf Canada, and became part of the publishers celebrated New Face of Fiction program. And though the attention that has been focused on Michel since publication has dramatically affected his life, sometimes in unexpected ways, he still considers the whole experience to be “a dream come true.”
Today, Michel lives in Toronto and is writing his second novel. His other writing projects include a produced stage play, independent film work and a radio drama for the CBC, as well as arts journalism. He has worked as a bookseller in both Toronto and Montreal.
Reading Group Guide
1. Many reviewers have commented on Michel Basilièress clear love for his characters, despite the sometimes awful things that they do. How did you feel about the less-than-honourable individuals in the Desouche family (such as Grandfather the misogynistic grave-robber, or Marie the terrorist and brother-tormentor)? In what ways do Basilièress portrayals make it hard to pin anyone down as “good” or “bad”?
2. In what ways can Black Bird be seen as a portrait of Montreal? Consider not only mentions of the physical city itself — the mountain, the streets, the invisible divisions between French and English neighbourhoods — but how the character of the city can be seen in the Desouche familys existence and activities.
3. The name “Desouche” is a play on the French expression “de vieille souche,” meaning authentically Québécois. In what ways could you consider the eccentric Desouche family “authentically Québécois”?
4. Throughout, Michel Basilières chooses names for his characters that are loaded with possible meanings and ties to moments in literature and Canadian history. Discuss the meanings of some of the names here, as well as the fact that some characters remain nameless (Father, Uncle, Mother).
5. Why does Aline stay with Grandfather? What solace does she find in the kitchen, and cooking? By the end of the novel, how well is she fitting in with the Desouche family?
6. Michel Basilières has been compared to writers such as Salman Rushdie, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Gunter Grass in his ability to weave fantastic elements into his otherwise “realistic” storylines. Discuss some of the more bizarre elements of Black Bird, and what they contribute to the story.
7. Discuss the issue of separatism as it is illuminated by the events of this novel. Who is for it, who against, and why? Could you say that the tensions between the English and the French are equalled by those between the haves and the have-nots?
8. Discuss the role of Grace, the crow. How does its shift in allegiance, to Aline, affect the household? Why does it follow Grandfather to the hospital? What kind of meanings can you build into its presence, or bring in from other familiar stories or writings? Why is Black Bird the title of this novel?
9. To what extent is Marie driven by her convictions, or by her love of family? Why does she kidnap John Cross and try to get her brother out of jail?
10. “Salman Rushdie says in The Satanic Verses that to be born again, first you have to die. It happens to a bunch of characters in the book, and theyre transformed.” — Michel Basilières. Discuss the role of rebirth, and the hope it brings, in Black Bird, considering both real and metaphorical deaths (e.g. Mothers sleep).
11. As Basilières warns us in his Authors Note, historical facts are used and twisted throughout Black Bird in ways that play on readers knowledge and associations — but of course, “Facts are one thing but fiction is another, and this is fiction.” Discuss how your knowledge of Quebec and Canadian history, or other literature, came into play during your reading, and the impact of Basilièress twists and allusions.
12. Discuss the effect of Basilièress humour on you as a reader. Were there specific parts of the book that made you laugh out loud? How does the lightness of the novels tone work with some of the more dark and dramatic events at hand?
13. Why does Basilières end the novel with the same words that open it? What do you think of the link suggested between Jean-Baptiste and our narrator?
14. What do you think the future holds for the Desouche family?