Considering forgiveness with Canada Reads’ Suzanne

While family relations are central to the story, Suzanne isn’t a love letter

Suzanne is a Canada Reads Finalist.
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Writing about family is difficult, but forgiving family for past wrongs is even more so—and that’s how Suzanne by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette succeeds.

Translated into English by Rhonda Mullins, Suzanne follows the life of Barbeau-Lavalette’s maternal grandmother, Suzanne Meloche, over the course of 85 years. 

The story briefly details every stage of her existence, from her childhood in the Great Depression through her teenage years during the Second World War through to her adulthood as an artist within the anti-establishment Automatist movement in Quebec and across the globe. 

Originally published in French under the title La femme qui fuit, the story begins when Barbeau-Lavalette, a director and screenwriter from Quebec, discovers a collection of photographs, letters, and personal documents in her grandmother’s apartment following her death in 2009. 

The remainder of the novel is a narrative retelling of Barbeau-Lavalette’s investigation into her grandmother’s past—a task undertaken to understand who Suzanne was as a person, outside of her role as a mother. 

In 1952, Suzanne abandoned her husband and two young children, leaving without explanation and only reaching out sporadically throughout the remainder of her life. 

This defining moment bleeds throughout the story and forms the basis of the author’s relationship with Suzanne.

However, despite a strained relationship with the character, the author’s astute descriptions paint her as a vastly more nuanced and interesting person than simply a bad parent. 

Written from a second person perspective, Barbeau-Lavalette tells the story through her own voice as a granddaughter directly addressing her grandmother. 

However, she approaches the story with a delicacy that balances her own passionate, emotional connection to the character with a critically objective, narrative tone. 

As such, the character remains difficult to sympathize with, but 

the lack of judgmental tone throughout the writing allows the character to reflect the complex woman she represents. 

Suzanne is written as a series of short chapters composed of short paragraphs with short sentences—a fast-paced writing style that permits Barbeau-Lavalette to convey the idea of Suzanne as a woman that didn’t linger in any one place for long. 

Every moment of the story, from her first trip to Montreal to the birth of her children is only briefly mentioned before the story carries on. 

It’s difficult to see family members as whole human beings with personalities who make mistakes and face challenges, as opposed to simply holding them within the confines of the familial roles they hold. 

Barbeau-Lavalette initially presents Suzanne as the mother who selfishly abandoned her family half a century earlier, but the story proceeds to acknowledge that decision as having been just one part of her complex life as a woman chasing freedom.

While forgiveness is a central theme in the novel, Suzanne is not a love letter from Barbeau-Lavalette to her grandmother. 

She never truly gives Suzanne complete redemption for her mistakes—but, she still tells a brilliant story with a remarkable, complicated character at its core.

 

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