Canoes by Maylis de Kerangal (transl. Jessica Moore): Giving voice to women

Cover image for Canoes by Maylis de Kerangal I was keen to read Maylis de Kerangal’s Canoes as soon as I spotted it in the publishing schedules having very much enjoyed Painting Time. Comprising one novella and seven short stories, its overarching theme is women’s voices, either heard or in narrative. As ever, I’ll pick out my favourites beginning with Mustang, the novella, which deserves a paragraph to itself.

You’ll see, children can adapt to everything, people kept telling me before we left. You too – you’ll adapt. 

Our narrator has moved with her husband and their son from France to Golden, Colorado. The Kid, as she calls him, is settling in, running eagerly to join his friends when she drops him off at school. Her husband works hard, making the most of his time studying at the School of Mines. No longer the busy urban professional, she feels lost, failing to adapt in the way everyone told her she would until she gives in and finally learns to drive, a decision that will have dramatic consequences. With sharp observation, and a slice of sly humour, de Kerangal brilliantly evokes small town American life, delivering a sucker punch of a reason for the family’s relocation together with an arresting ending.

It’s a clear and golden voice, a voice from a Grecian isle in June, a voice diluted in a breath: the voice of a woman on the verge of leaving.

Of the seven short stories, all very brief, three stood out for me. In Mountain Stream and Iron Filings, a woman is both dismayed and angry when she finds an old friend has changed her voice, adopting a more masculine timbre so that she will be taken more seriously in her job at a radio station. A Light Bird sees a daughter plead with her widowed father to erase his wife’s message from his answering machine, a message that he’s often played to recall the memory of its recording. With her erect stature, jeans and red t-shirt, ninety-two-year-old Ariane confounds the expectations of an official come to take her testimony about a UFO sighting in the final story, Arianespace.  

I nodded, but then suddenly asked (the microphone amplifying my boldness): the narrator of the poem is a man, right? Sylvia (Rhodia notebook), surprised, let out a feral hiss: poetry has no gender.

From A Light Bird’s powerful reminder of how dear to us beloved voices are to Nevermore’s vocal connoisseurs, de Kerangal’s collection emphasises the importance of voice and how it’s often women’s voices that are not heard. There’s not a dud in this collection which combines a painterly prose with pinpoint sharp observation. Her author’s note tells us she began her stories shortly before the pandemic’s masks all but removed our mouths from public view giving her choice of theme an eerie prescience. Jessica Moore’s description of her partnership with de Kerangal elegantly underlines both the collection’s theme and the delicate relationship between translator and author:

In the way of literary translators, I have walked through the corridors of her text, listening intently, and have tried to match my timbre to hers as closely as two different languages and two separate worlds allow.

Rebecca at Bookish Beck has also reviewed the collection along with Amy Bloom’s A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, a favourite of mine. You can read her post here.

MacLehose Press: London 9781529419658 160pages Hardback

15 thoughts on “Canoes by Maylis de Kerangal (transl. Jessica Moore): Giving voice to women”

  1. Now I want to know why they moved! This is an interesting and relevant theme to tie the stories together. In Ariennespace I’m guessing both gender and age would contribute equally to invisibilizing her.

  2. Of course I look forward to reading this book – Maylis de Kerangal is always one to watch for me, and I love the Jessica Moore translation of her (much more than Sam Taylor, sorry).

  3. I loved this author’s Mend the Living when I read it a few years ago, and she’s someone I’d like to return to. Are the stories set in America, too? I’ve always thought of her as a European writer in terms of her sensibilities and settings, so it’s intriguing to see her roaming elsewhere…

  4. The cover image is striking. And anything “canoe” catches my attention because my husband loves canoeing. Although, I imagine there’s not a lot of canoeing going on. Maybe a little in Colorado, where the novella is set?

    1. It is striking isn’t it. I did read one review which referred to a canoe motif running through the stories which left me feeling a bit dim as it seemed to have passed me by!

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