Reviews

SaskBooks Reviews september 4, 2018
Autant, the highly original novel by Albertan Paulette Dubé, begins with a confession – in the Catholic sense – and a directory of the multiple characters who populate this 144-page tale, set in small fictional Autant, Alberta. The inter-generational story unfolds between two years — 1952 and 2012 — and it’s big on superstition, angels, sibling dynamics, and bees.

At the centre of the bustling “hive” is the Franco-Albertan Garance family, headed by Edgar and Lucille. The youngest of their daughters, perceptive Bella, is prone to bleeding and headaches, and as Lucille’s offspring she comes by her superstitions honestly. Lucille paints her kitchen door blue “so that angels would recognize the house as a safe place,” and as a child she found a stone that “gave her dreams of a tall ship, a beautiful woman with blue eyes, long red hair, and, then, a small boat on dark water.” Young Bella also has an affinity for stones. She leaves them for her mother as gifts “inside shoes, beside the bed, under the pillow. It was her way of saying I love you, goodbye, and I took four biscuits.” These quotes aptly demonstrate the way in which this novel moves between moments of magic realism and the everyday (i.e., “biscuits”). The book also paints a realistic picture of the laborious and sometimes bloody work that is a fact of rural life (i.e., butchering livestock).

Interspersed between the familial storylines are short comedic episodes in which God and the angel Ruel are in a bar “nursing warm beers,” while discussing the latter’s return to and mission in the mortal world. (Coyote and Lily, an otherworldy gal — who “blows a perfect square” with her cigarette — also feature here.) Bella is nonplussed by her visits from Ruel, with the ever-changing eyes. He tells her an anecdote about God using His ear wax to create ten bees to gather stories about “the goings on of the world,” and indeed, bees feature in this novel in myriad ways, from honey recipes and its medicinal uses to, naturally, stings. “Straight honey on a boil” is said to “[shrink] that ugly blot to nothing in about two days.” Could honey be Autant’s “gold mine,” or might bees portend doom?

Dubé has previously published five poetry collections, and though this book is predominantly told in dialogue – and most people don’t “speak” in poetry — the Westlock-born writer does occasionally sweeten her prose with honey-like phrases, such as “Summer was buttoned with roses.”

This short novel’s most interesting characters, like Lucille, tread between devout Christianity and superstition. The woman who tells her daughter that she needs to “Pray [her] braid” as she plaits her daughter’s locks — “Each twist of hair, each over-under connection, was blessed” — is also the woman who transfers stories to bees through her skin. Dubé’ has assuredly created a world where one might confuse ash, “so delicate silver-white,” with moth wings. Complex, daring, imaginative, and beautifully-produced, this new Thistledown Press release hums with energy.

— Shelley A. Leedahl SaskBook Reviews