The appeal of reading a book like Dominique Fortier’s Wonder swells and radiates as pages turn.
The story begins (like Dennison Smith’s The Eye of the Day, another of my favourite books in this reading year) with a proverbial bang.
But despite the eruption of Mount Pelée in Martinique dramatically launching the novel, the reading experience is more of a slow burn.
It is less about an immediacy and more about a lasting sensation; even after the story has ended, layers and interconnections are revealed.
(Quite literally, for me, as I used the book flaps to mark the novel’s three parts and only then realized that C.S. Richardson’s design quietly identifies them as well, as shown in the photograph below.)
It is the sort of book which elicits a series of soft “oohh” and “hmmm” sounds as the story unfolds, the sort of book which deserves such a simple but powerful title.
It is also the sort of book which will frustrate readers looking for ribbon-adorned tidy endings and predictable arcs and a page-turning plot; it is rich with sensory detail, crenellated with interconnection, and it is as much about marvelling as unearthing.
Often marvels are multi-faceted; what is essential can shift and alter, transmute and transform.
The prose is consistently measured and crafted, but sometimes has a more lyrical and amorphous aspect and other times more ordinary and concrete.
“The wind floats above the woods, coming from all sides at once as if it were the breathing of the thousand trees that sway, stiff, in the gusts, with a hiss like what one hears when pressing an ear against a shell that still holds a memory of the sea.”
The earth in Wonder has a heart, which beats throughout the story’s events and characters, the elements ever-present but unpredictable. This simmers beneath, but there is enough of the specific for readers to take hold of a more sharply defined plot which plays out against (and amongst) this elemental scene.
“’Did you see her with that tureen?’ sniffed the cook. ‘She looked like she was carrying a chamber pot.’”
The cook’s world is turned upside-down; it is carnival time, and the lady of the house carries a tureen as though it were a chamber pot. But existence for the residents of Saint-Pierre, Martinique is about to be more topsy-turvy than any carnival.
And perhaps an eruption is something of a carnival for the earth. If so, by default the sole survivor becomes the ring-master; but in this upside-down world, the sole-survivor becomes the spectacle, though other characters cluster about him, and the story blooms and boils.
Even the vocabulary is lush (I paused to look up words like Béké, ciborium, and kilims) and undoubtedly translator Sheila Fischman contributes to that aspect of the novel’s rich presentation. But the level of sensory detail is consistently impressive throughout the work, even when expressed in very simple language.
“’Those clouds are from Mount Pelée,’ Edward announced. ‘They’ve travelled across half the planet and are now over Europe.’ Then, more pragmatically: ‘It’s sulphur that gives them those colours.’”
This is not ostentation (though the imagery does deserve appreciation); the image of the colourful clouds is not only a remarkable vision however, but it is an overt reminder of the many links between characters, events and themes in Wonder.
For the three narratives are linked, and the common threads are recognizable and visible throughout; the story is not tied as tightly as some readers might like, but there is enough to satisfy readers who like to leave a little room to wonder. (The level of ambiguity works for me; it adds to credibility without resolving and explaining every detail.)
Some of the connections are subtle. Take, for instance, the recurrence of the image of lace in the story, whether coral or leaves, collars or sleeves. Or the number of times that characters are compared in metaphors and similes to other inhabitants of this earth (winged, furred, foliaged). Or the recurring importance of the significance of names/naming.
Often connections are inexplicable, paradoxical. And even simple alignments provoke questions that can take lifetimes to explore (even then, remaining unanswered).
“On the walls between the platforms where the candles are burning hang dozens of wooden crutches and canes, no doubt left by lame pilgrims cured by the Frère André’s salutary attentions or the restorative action of Saint Joseph, to whom the sanctuary is consecrated. He shivers at the sight of this collection, unable to stop himself from imagining the mountains of eye-glasses and shoes that inevitably evoke Auschwitz.”
Wonder is simultaneously an intricate and sweeping story, a magnificent exploration of the fine line between being saved and being destroyed. (I’m looking forward to seeing Dominique Fortier’s name on this reading year’s prizelists.)
This review originally appeared here on Buried.In.Print.