Boundary by Andree A Michaud
The Summer of 1967. The sun shines brightly over Boundary Lake, a holiday haven on the US-Canadian border. Families relax in the heat, happy and carefree. Hours tick away to the sound of radios playing "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and "A Whiter Shade of Pale". Children run along the beach as the heady smell of barbecues fills the air. Zaza Mulligan and Sissy Morgan, with their long, tanned legs and silky hair, relish their growing reputation as the red and blonde Lolitas. Life seems idyllic.
But then Zaza disappears and the skies begin to cloud over.
If you are looking for something different to read this summer then you should try Boundary. It is a great work of literary fiction; hugely evocative of summer and the lives of those in a small town during the holiday season.
Welcome to Bondree, a town on the border between Quebec and Maine.
"Bondree is a place where shadows defeat the harshest light, an enclave whose lush vegetation recalls the virgin forests that covered the North American continent three of four centuries ago. Its name derives from a deformation of the word "boundary" or frontier."
What better setting for a mystery, for a crime, for a place full of legends and myths, for a place of ghosts who haunt the forest than somewhere with a deep forest and a lake? What better setting in which to explore themes of belonging, outsiders, coming of age and the dynamics operating in a small community than a town which hovers between two places, representing both a barrier and a frontier? Bondree is a "stateless domain, a no-man's land" and Michaud captures this fluidity between countries not just in her lyrical, flowing prose but also in her use of both French and English names and words.
We begin with a dramatic opening that suggests danger but then the story begins again with a new heading - Pierre Landry. The novel is written in several sections named after characters in the book and this helps create more intrigue and an interesting way in which to shape this story which unravels slowly and carefully.
I was immediately hooked by the story of Pierre Landry; a man who since his death had become a figure of fear. Stories of Landry revolve around words like savagery, madness, violence and grief. He is almost mythologised by the locals and the story of his unrequited love for Tanager is known by everyone- her haunting feared by all as they walk through the dense wilderness and lake's shoreline. The early introduction of the story of Landry is effective in establishing the atmosphere for the novel and creating a sense of malevolence, uncertainty, fear and perhaps most strikingly, dark fairy tales. I liked the etherial feel of the first pages and the poetic language which I felt myself becoming immersed in very quickly and very easily.
School's out, the summer has begun. Zaza Mulligan and Sissy Morgan, who have been friends "since always and for evermore, for life and 'til death do us part, for now and forever" are ready to spend the nights painting their faces and turning boy's heads. Young Andree Duchamp is fascinated - infatuated even - by them but the rest of the town is divided. Some say spoilt, some say obnoxious, some say heading towards a fall. But to Andree they are not "bad seeds, just wild plants." I loved the way Michaud writes about them at the beginning of the book; girls that "snigger", "seduce", girls that tease and girls that seem reckless and provocative. I also liked the fact that the fate of the girls is not hidden from the reader. This is a murder investigation but what makes this crime novel interesting is that it is as much about the impact the events have on the local community. Zaza and Sissy are missing - young, teenage girls that disappear yet the reactions from the other characters is that they are neither shocked nor surprised. They are all moved but mainly because of the brutality of the girls' fates. Or they "resent" them because of the "soul searching" it forces them to do as they consider their judgemental behaviour and pettiness.
I think I enjoyed the young voice of Andree the most. Written in first person it is very easy to feel empathy with her and her world perspective is full of insight and poignant observations. It's understated but weighted with meaning. I enjoyed her relationship with her mother and I also enjoyed the way she talked about her brother and the journey he finds himself on. Michaud's capturing of the tone, expression, thoughts and observations of this girl are extremely well conveyed and the balance between capturing a young voice and imparting more subtle information and characterisation to the reader are exquisitely managed. The use of the first person narrative is also a contrast with the third person narrative of the other characters.
I also enjoyed the passages about the investigation and the different characters involved in carrying out the police work. The medical examiner knows that dead bodies "talk" and leaves the detective alone with Sissy before he then begins his work and "she will reveal her secrets to him." Michaud's writing is contrary - it is beautiful, metaphorical, poetic and lyrical but also graphic, violent and brutal. Often there are lines which are complete juxtapositions. The writing does not shy away from words like "fetish", "carcass" and shocking descriptions of the bodies. Michaud's prose mimics the contrast of the clinical findings of the police investigation against the reality of the emotional horror of this crime.There is also much description of the violence Landry, Little Hawk and Tanager have either suffered themselves or are accused of causing to others.
This is quite a unique novel and one that is about so much more than just a terrible crime in a small town. It is a difficult novel to sum up in a few words and a difficult to novel to define or restrict to one genre. Michaud is clearly an incredibly talented and gifted writer and the most mesmerising thing about this book was the prose. I particularly enjoyed this sentence that plays with language:
"the insults she tried to hurl at there assailant turned into gurglings, arg, argil, gargul...."
And the following quote which describes the town after the discovery of Zaza's body was also one of my favourites:
"Boundary was cloaked in the kind of calm that follows on a drama, a numbness of days of mourning, when everyone feels compelled to whisper, to lower the radio's volume, to keep the children inside. That silence would last a day or two at the most, and then the noise would reassert itself. ........There was no role in this game for those who were no longer there."
The reviews have been mixed for this book as it's literary prose will not be for everyone but I would recommend it. I was swept along by it. I did reread sections and I would like to reread it again in the future to fully acknowledge the skill and language that has created something so atmospheric and evocative. It is not an overly long read and the storyline is gripping but the language is intense and requires time to absorb and appreciate it.
Boundary has been awarded several literary prizes and I am not at all surprised.
Boundary was published by No Exit Press on 23rd March 2017