The LRC reviewed 128 books in 2003. In this inaugural year-in-review feature, we want to draw attention to five of those books that we believe will have lasting significance. Some, like Fire and Ice by Michael Adams, have already made a considerable splash on the Canadian scene; others, like Gordon Sheppard’s HA!, we feel will have a quieter but no less profound impact. Naturally, our selections are evidence of the subjective nature of any attempt to pick the best of something. We certainly reviewed enough books in 2003—many superb by any standard—for you to choose the ones that will endure for you.
HA! A Self-Murder Mystery
Gordon Sheppard (McGill-Queen’s University Press)
Near the beginning of this nearly 900-page quest to understand the 1977 suicide of celebrated Quebecois writer Hubert Aquin, Gordon Sheppard asks Jean Ethier-Blais, “If one considers Aquin’s suicide as a work, what do you think is the best way to present the results of the investigation of his suicide … as a documentary, based on testimony like yours? Or as a fiction created from a transportation of the facts gathered in the testimonies?” Blais answers, “Oh, I think you have to do it as a documentary. Suicide is rather banal, and you would remove any interest it might have by making a fiction of it:’
HA! itself is anything but banal. Classified as a novel by its publishers, the strength of the narrative comes not from traditional fictional elements but rather from a cornucopia of treasures mined from carefully documented interviews, novel excerpts, paintings and photos, reproduced correspondence, originally created soundscapes and the odd stage direction. Sheppard, a friend and almost-collaborator of Aquin’s, spent more than 20 years crafting the elements from which he built this book. No one he interviews—partners, lovers, artists, writers, politicians—seems quite as needful of a definitive answer to the question of why as Sheppard himself does; for the most part, they seem to think either the answer is self-evident or the question itself is not the most relevant one.
Sheppard circles and circles, directing the action, building the crescendo of a non-linear structure, drawing parallels to art, literature, famous suicides, politics, history; he peels away layer after layer of truth so that the why expands to include not only an anatomy of suicide, but also an anatomy of the Quebecois separatist movement of the 1970S and, ultimately, an anatomy of an artist and man.
Literary Review of Canada