If you have ever attempted to trace your own genealogy, you know it is not a simple matter of careful, cosy research. It is an active struggle against the forgettings, omissions, and concealments of previous generations. No matter how pristine the pedigree, every family has a few skeletons, packed away in cottony half-truths that over time harden into fact: that man who lived with Uncle Earl was his roommate; it’s an error on grandma’s birth certificate that makes it look as though she was born out of wedlock; and Aunt Marie spent a lot of time outdoors, which surely accounts for her dark complexion. When we tell the story of our families — of ourselves — it is not just we who speak, but a splintered chorus of past and present truths, lies, and errors.
In this sense, Gail Scott’s latest novel, The Obituary, is a ghost story. The author playfully acknowledges as much, declaring, “Rest assured, dear X, a tale’s encrypted mid all these future comings + goings … Circumstantially, I am posturing as woman of inchoate origin [problematically, I can hear you saying]. To underscore how we are haunted by secrets of others.” It is partly through its “encryption” that the tale explores and enacts how past and present live side by side, on the city map, in our architecture, and perhaps most of all, in our language. Typically, the sentence is a unit of narrative, built through syntax to create a sense of linear time. In Scott’s work, however, sentences fragment, loosening the relationship between clauses and calling on the reader to piece moments together. Consequently, The Obituary is also a mystery of sorts. Is our main character, Rosine, in her shrink’s office? Lounging in her Mile End triplex? Riding the #80 bus up Avenue du Parc? Is she a fly on the wall? Or the feminist historian who footnotes the text? The coexistence of these possibilities makes the narrative both elusive and worth coming back to.
Scott is constantly searching for innovative ways to reveal what is said and unsaid, absence as a kind of presence, and the influence of past events on the present moment. Her prose is anything but seamless. By design it trips the reader up in order to make time feel more expansive than in a conventional novel, to let a multiplicity of voices speak, and even to allow backtracking and back-talking, as when a footnote takes exception with the chestnut that “In this land everyone an immigrant,” or when Rosine remembers her mother scolding someone “For saying you, Grandpa, speaking Indian Cree to Great-Grandma Dousse.”
Rosine’s — and Canada’s — indigenous roots are perhaps the weightiest ghosts here. While Montréal is the novel’s setting, it is also the canvas on which many erasures and lies of omission have been acted out. This is partly the natural evolution of a city: when one building burns down, another is built on its foundation; street names are changed; deeds and leases change hands. But when we live in a space where someone else lived before us, we also live with them — with their dirt, their shoddy repair jobs, their neighbours who liked them better than us. Traces of what came before — or what presently is, but is denied — hide in plain sight. The myth of Montréal as a city divided simply between francophone and anglophone obscures the more complex reality, in which aboriginal Canadians and others play an important part. Here, absences speak and, as in a well-researched family tree, those voices erased by the shame or arrogance of previous generations press forth. If an obituary is an account of a life, Scott’s seeks to gather the forgotten and omitted details left to the margins, the ghosts that haunt us and make us who we are.
Abby Paige is Vermont-born and Montreal-based writer and performer, whose current projects are detailed at http://www.abbypaige.com/.