Friday, October 30, 2009

Review: Borne back ceaselessly into the past

Olivier Adam's short, lyrical novel Cliffs, kindly sent by the Pushkin Press, is a wonder to behold. What begins in a fugue-like manner, as if fearful to begin the story, the narrative subtly explodes and investigates the narrator's life and the effect of his mother's suicide that changed his family's dynamic. It's a tale that tries to proclaim as intently as possible that 'the past is a fiction, that you can wipe the slate clean, that you can build on top of ruins and live without foundations.' 

Cliffs does feel like a story that we've heard before: The narrator, to the day, returns with his family to the site and the hotel where his own mother killed herself by jumping into the cliffs of Normandy twenty-something years before. In honour of this, he pays his respects the only way he knows how: by meditating on the past, by trying to understand why he is where he is, why his family disintegrated slowly but surely. After his mother dies, an eventful funeral where his brother falls into a coma becomes the start of many problems. His father becomes abusive and totalitarian, which accelerates both siblings' desire to run away from home, an act they both do accomplish in disparate ways. A brief reunion of brothers does more than bring back two men, but the gaunt thoughts of their mother:
At dawn, we walked to the beach and he went skinny-dipping as the sun was coming up. He showed me his new tattoos on his back and chest; I told him I liked them. He had that faint smile, the one I'd always loved, the one he wore when he knew he was impressing me. Suddenly my mother started to float on the still water, then dissolved after barely a second.

I never saw or heard from him again after that. I don't know if he's still living that life, if he finally settled down somewhere, or if he's dead.
Brief chapters don't allow these thoughts to expound on each other, like in a Virginia Woolf novel; but they act like intense vignettes that jerk the reader back and forth, cascaded on the rapids, like waves smashed on to the crags of a cliff. There is a slight sense of echoing, where a minor thought is revealed earlier in the narrative, only to reverberate later on, tremoring the story into something that feels like it could fragment or adhere. And in that the novel rides on the border of cliché and brilliance at all times, an interesting and tenuous threshold to remain on.

Building on that idea, the only parts of the novel that seem somewhat out of place are the mid-sections about the narrator's sexual history, the argument of how he met his wife. The focus is so much on the body and explicit description that it feels like this could be part of another novel. But when one looks closer it's fascinating to see the argument of the unity of mind and body that this novel encapsulates, how truly interconnected physicality and perception really are. There is something pleasantly lachrymose about this novel, one of the most aware of its kind.


Amy Reads Good Books said...

Great title for your review! That's one of my all-time favorite lines!

Salvatore said...

Thanks, it is from one of the best sentences. After entitling the review that way, I actually started re-reading Gatsby for the tenth time.