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Marie-Claire Blais: Soifs (These Festive Nights)

The blurb on the back of my copy of the French-language edition quotes from three reviews, none of which says anything at all. Frankly, I can sympathise. The entire book – over 300 pages in the French edition – is one long paragraph. I doubt if there were more than a dozen sentence breaks. In short, it is hard reading. Of course, she has done this before, e.g. in Visions d’Anna (Anna’s World). But, at least in that work, there was a limited cast of characters and you could soon figure out who was related to whom. In this work, there is a larger cast and it is not always clear who they are and where they come from. They pop in, without introductions, and then disappear again and you are never sure what their role was. Of course, that might well be the point.

The book is set on a Caribbean island at the end of 1999 with a group of people who, as you can see from the English title, are partying and who also, as you can see from the French title (it means Thirsts), are thirsty and need that thirst slaking. The Caribbean island is not named but, as she wrote much of the book on Key West, Key West may well have influenced her here. We start out with Claude and Renata, two Canadian lawyers who have been fighting against the execution of a convicted criminal in Texas and have just learned that he has been executed. We move on to Jacques, who is studying Kafka – Blais is clearly making a point here – and then a parade of characters, all of whom, as in her other books, are meant to show from their lives, whether as victims or as abusers, the violence, sexism and racism in the world. This Blais clearly does and it will not be lost on even the most casual reader, particularly as we are on a Caribbean island where the needs of whites are met by blacks. But Blais uses the characters to illustrate worldwide violence, racism and sexism. One family lost relatives in the Holocaust and we get to see what happened, while another woman was in a village attacked by Cuban soldiers. Sexism and racism are not all brutal. For example, she shows how many famous male musicians had equally talented wives, whose talents were not recognised. As in her other works, the points are made again and again so we cannot miss them. Of course, what she has to say is entirely valid and she makes the points unequivocally but it is a hard slog to get there.

Publishing history

First published 1995 by Editions du Boréal
First published in English 1997 by House of Anansi
Translated by Sheila Fischman