Book Review - Canoes

The French author Maylis de Kerangal’s acclaimed fifth novel, Mend the Living, about a young man’s transplanted heart, was adapted for both stage and film, and awarded the Wellcome Book Prize in 2017. The author’s first collection of short stories explores similar themes of loss and renewal, human connection and our complex relationship with the past. 

Canoes is comprised of a novella, “Mustang”, and seven stories that echo with the sound of women’s voices. Kerangal started writing them during the pandemic when, as she observes in an author’s note, “mouths abruptly disappeared under masks and voices became filtered, obstructed, veiled”. 

In the opening tale, “Bivouac”, the narrator is having a mould made of her teeth when the dentist shows her an image of a human jawbone from the Mesolithic found in Paris’s 15th arrondissement. 

Kerangal is interested in exploring the traces humans leave behind and, as the narrator observes, teeth often provide “the only possibility for formal identification”. 

However, some people leave no marks whatsoever. The jawbone reminds her of a fleeting visit to the same neighbourhood, aged 13, to stay with her mother’s friend Olive. Olive’s fiancé had died in a helicopter accident, his body pulverised by the explosion: “They didn’t find anything that might identify him . . . not even a tooth.” 

The timbre of our voices can also define us, and in “Mountain Stream and Iron Filings”, a woman experiences a strange dissonance when meeting an old friend, Zoé, after some time apart: “I felt like I was feverishly turning the knob on the side of a transistor radio . . . to find the right station for my friend.” 

Zoé admits she has worked with a vocal coach for a job in radio. The narrator misses the familiarity of her friend’s “clear and lively timbre, a voice with a staccato flow, sharp, but one that could grow louder without stridence — a mountain stream.”  

Yet Zoé observes women’s voices have lowered “ever since they had started occupying positions of power”. The pair celebrate by ordering two more White Russians. 

Familiarity is also missing in “Mustang”, when a woman moves to Denver with her family. As her husband and child adapt and get on with their lives, she remains adrift, nursing a loss, consumed by feelings of not belonging. In the shadow of the Rockies, she becomes fascinated with the deep past, “the earth not yet populated by humans”, which gives her a new outlook. 

Grief permeates the collection. One of the most affecting tales here is “A Light Bird”, which focuses on another female voice — a widower’s relationship with a message left on an answering machine by his late wife. 

When his daughter Lise asks him to erase it, “I capsized against the back of the chair . . . I felt like a man standing on a frozen river that suddenly cracks and splits, fracture lines starring outward”. Although his wife has been dead for five years, “her voice survived her, in recorded form, indestructible, in the form of a light bird.” With a deft shift of perception, Lise suggests a way they can both retain the way in which she sounded. 

The beauty of Kerangal’s poetic, multi-layered stories, full of sensory detail and expertly translated by Jessica Moore, lies in their emotional resonance. Anyone dealing with change cannot fail to be moved.

Originally published by The Financial Times