Effigy (Effigie), Review, Le Monde

Translation of the review of Effigy (Effigie) that appeared in the September 25, 2008 issue of Le Monde; original French.

Reviewed by Raphaëlle Rerolle.
Translated from French (Canada) by Florence Levy-Paolini.
Ed Joelle Losfeld.

Effigie, by Alissa York:  an exploration of the human soul.

She appears to be perfectly normal, notwithstanding a very Hichcockian glamour – a dark-haired Grace Kelly, eyes glittering with mischief – but Alissa York is a strange person. She is a young writer, not yet forty, whose books are unashamedly awash with gore:  blood, raw flesh, stretched skins, brains stained “pearl grey,” and various other pieces of anatomy more or less damaged.  But here the similarity to the cinema ends, since its use of gore so often borders on obscenity, a sullying, what leads to our calling it trash.

And there is nothing trashy about the work of this talented Canadian writer, whose second novel has just been published in France. As in “Mercy”, her previous work (ed. Joelle Losfeld, 2007), blood is a substance pervasive and dangerous, disturbing but never dirty – beautiful even.  And inside the human body is nothing less than a space of order and beauty, when not undermined by violence.

In “Effigie ” the writer uses these elements as a striking counterpoint to the obsessive subject already explored in her first book – passion;  or, rather, passions, varied and tumultuous and likely to escape human reason. There is love of course, but also sex and religion, greed, game-playing and power.  And this is not happening just anywhere:  in choosing to set her novel in a nineteenth-century American Mormon community, the author has opted for a context that’s extraordinarily rich in tensions, secrets, repressions, and family complications of all kinds.  It’s a blast furnace, burning day and night, from which passions, frustrations and torments roar.

At the centre of the book is the family life of Erastus Hammer, a wealthy Utah horse-breeder:  four wives (each ranked according to her arrival in the patriarch’s bed), children from two mothers, and extremely entangled relationships.  Who begot whom?  Who is raising whom?  And, as well, who is sleeping with whom?  The question of relationships (blood certainly, but also love and ties other than blood) winds through the story following a sophisticated system of revolving points-of-view. Kaleidoscope-like the narrative voice is given to different protagonists:  wives, children, a farm-labourer, and even a bird flying above the Mountain Meadows battlefield where around a hundred emigrants were massacred by Mormon settlers and Paiute Indians in 1857.

The skill with which Alissa York makes this system work, avoiding all confusion, compels our admiration and allows us to ignore the few stylistic lapses (“le fosse noir du sommeil”) that don’t enhance the work. Despite these lapses, the whole is strong, without affectation.  The story-teller is like the bird of prey that narrates certain chapters:  she soars above the characters, landing first on one’s shoulder, then another’s, and another’s, so as to see the world through their eyes .. or, through their flesh, since Mormons believe that human beings choose to be on this earth to experience life in a body of flesh and bone.

And Alissa York is able to take this incarnation in quite mysterious directions.  One man, one body?  That’s too simple.  All the characters have, in addition to complex relationships with other humans, passionate relationships with animals – birds, silkworms, wolves, horses. This intimacy is at its most intense in the detailed descriptions of Dorrie’s activities – Dorrie, the fourth wife who stuffs animals in order to “inject” a shape, to “restore an appearance of life”.

On several occasions, the novelist even imagines scenes where human and animal merge.  As a child, John James, the farm-labourer, “is transformed into a dog”, while Ursula, the first wife, feels her body “become smooth and slippery like a trout”, and Thankful, the third wife, wears a dress that makes her “look like a vulture transformed into a woman”.

Where does man stop? And what does he contain within?  As the organs lay exposed, the inner being emerges:  the human soul – that well of darkness, contradictions, unsolvable enigmas – compared to which, the blood, bones and all that flesh brought to life by Alissa York are a realm of calm and harmony.

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