0 com

Jimmy Beaulieu's Bikini

Here's a review I wrote for the Summer 2014 issue of the Montreal Review of Books. Because the following graphic novel was pretty slim, I spent some time at the public library reading other works by Jimmy Beaulieu. He definitely dares to be an innovator, and I'm sure that there are people "borrowing" some of his unique ideas. I particularly enjoyed his take on body image, both male and female.  

My Neighbour’s Bikini
Jimmy Beaulieu
Conundrum Press

Jimmy Beaulieu is a creative force in the French-speaking graphic novel milieu. The cartoonist has published 16 books in the past 14 years, in addition to working as the publisher at Mécanique Générale and starting his own small-print press Colosse. In 2010, English Canada was finally able to see some of Beaulieu’s work with the release of Suddenly Something Happened. It was the story of Beaulieu’s life, his childhood growing up among a huge extended family on Île d’Orléans, his parents’ separation, his years of singledom in the Métropole, and finally life with his girlfriend in Montreal’s Rosemont. Suddenly Something Happened showcased Beaulieu’s significant skill as a graphic artist and his wonderful sense of humour. However, it failed to show another aspect of the cartoonist’s considerable talent, something that is fortunately in My Neighbour's Bikini.

Originally published in French in 2006, My Neighbour’s Bikini is the story of two shy neighbours living on the Plateau who meet on a sweltering summer day when everything grinds to a halt because of a power blackout. Simon introduces himself to his neighbour Bernadette on a downtown street, and after they walk home together, Bernadette invites Simon to go for a swim at the neighbourhood pool. The chance meeting has an authentic cringeworthy feel to it, mainly because of the realistic dialogue, and this short tale offers a very accurate depiction of Montreal. However, at first glance, the story has some sizable shortcomings. I initially thought that the problem might be the translation, but upon closer examination I realized that there was a problem with the story’s flow.

In a graphic novel the reader has to be able to readily understand the relationship between two consecutive panels, through visual or textual clues. However, in my first reading of My Neighbour’s Bikini, this relationship between panels was not always clear. Two vignettes have been inserted into the storyline that have zero or little impact on the outcome of the narrative. In the first instance, Bernadette and Simon’s conversation is interrupted by a sequence with a young man cycling on the Mont-Royal. In the second, the story jumps abruptly from Bernadette and Simon walking home to two women in an apartment sharing an intimate moment. One of these women, who the reader later meets at the pool, is Bernadette’s neighbour. While these two vignettes were initially confusing, they do add some atmospheric detail to the story, lending it an overall dreamlike quality. Introducing vignettes into the traditional storyline, I discovered, was a recurring pattern in Beaulieu’s other work. This is especially true in À la faveur de la nuit, a humourous tale about two women telling each other stories late into the night.

Another recurring feature in Jimmy Beaulieu’s work that was non-existent in Suddenly Something Happens is nudity, which is tastefully presented and never gratuitous in My Neighbour’s Bikini. Beaulieu has considerable talent at drawing nudes, and the author should be given credit for presenting natural-looking full-hipped women rather than the standard waif variety. In the past, he has presented work with frontal nudes of men, which was the subject of complaints at the Quai des Bulles Festival in St Malo, France. Naked women were apparently fine, but a naked man in an intimate moment was apparently offensive….

I must admit that I was initially puzzled by the publisher’s choice to translate a book that was first released in French eight years ago. Obviously, it did not reflect how far the author has come since then. But My Neighbour’s Bikini, although not Beaulieu’s best, is tamer than some of his other work, and it may be a way to test the waters to see how English speakers will react to his more audacious content. Overall, once I accepted his non-traditional storyline, I enjoyed the oneiric quality of his work, and of course, I liked that his characters, both male and female, looked like everyday people, a refreshing and welcome change.

Other book-related reviews
Lily and Taylor by Elise Moser
World of Glass by Jocelyne Dubois
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
Letting It Go by Miriam Katin
My Mother, the Nazi Midwife and Me by Gina Roitman
Stony River by Tricia Dower
Susceptible by Geneviève Castrée
Studio Saint-Ex by Ania Szado
Bombay Wali and other stories by Veena Gokhale
The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier
Gay Dwarves of America by Anne Fleming

Read more »
0 com

Interview w/ Heather O'Neill, author of The Girl Who Was Saturday Night

Here's an interview I did with Heather O'Neill last May. I made the fatal error of not writing it up and pitching it immediately. Instead, I pushed headlong into planning our summer holidays in the UK and registering my two children for day camp. When I came up for air, I noticed that every conceivable media outlet in Montreal had interviewed the author, so I decided wait for a lazy day, like today, to post it.

It’s been seven long years since the release of Heather O’Neill’s Lullabies for Little Criminals, the gritty tale of Baby, a motherless child raised on Ste-Catherine Street by her drug-addicted father. The book went on to become an international bestseller, shortlisted for the Orange Prize and long-listed for the IMPAC Dublin International Literary Award. This is indeed impressive for a first novel. But that unexpected success put considerable pressure on the author to come up with an equally as good follow-up, and according to the author, this was not easy.

“The idea for The Girl Who Was Saturday Night came very slowly,” said O’Neill at our interview, one of many she would give that day.

According to O’Neill, the pressure came mainly from herself. “I’d start something and then ask myself how it would be received in say, South Africa. There was this idea that I had to please, something I didn’t feel with my first book. ” She added that her brother-in-law had once referred to her distracted stare as second bookitis.

Although the idea came to her like a coffee-machine set to slow drip, there are some undeniable commonalities between Lullabies for Little Criminals and The Girl Who Was Saturday Night. Baby, like the twin protagonists Nouschka and Nicolas, basically raise themselves in the same sordid area of Montreal, clinging to each other for comfort as parentless children often do. O’Neill described the twins as “enmeshed.”In the story, they often feel like a single character with Nicholas embodying the dark side and Nouschka the light. However at age 20, Nouschka begins to forge her own path away from her brother, just as in the backdrop, Quebec is moving away from Canada.

“I chose to set the story in the period leading up to the 1995 Referendum to emphasize the theme of separation, both for the twins and Canada.”

Another commonality between the two novels is the less than ideal paternal figure. The twin’s father, the top-hat wearing Etienne Tremblay, is a washed up 70s folk singer with a criminal past. He is self-obsessed and uses his cute little twins as props, a means to garner more of the public’s attention. As I read the story, I tried to think of whom the character might be based on, and Jean Le Loup immediately came to mind. “Yes, he definitely wore a top hat,” said O’Neill. “I do have an unrequited love for Jean Le Loup, but he’s the wrong period.” Etienne was in fact a composite character based on many Quebec folk singers and performers, such as Gilles Vigneault, Robert Charlebois, Leonard Cohen and Claude Dubois. However, O’Neill emphasized that she drew on their very best, charismatic sides. After all, Etienne has some unsavoury proclivities.

But is The Girl Who Was Saturday Night a condemnation of celebrity? According to O’Neill it isn’t. Instead, she was interested in what it would be like to be a star or the child of a star growing up in Montreal.

“The Quebec star system has always been of great interest to me, and it’s funny that so few people outside of Quebec actually know it exists,” said O’Neill. Apparently, her US publisher needed to get the rights to the work of a Quebec artist that O’Neill had used in her previous novel. The publisher was incensed that she had to jump through so many hoops for the rights to something from a forgotten folksinger. The artist in question was Félix Leclerc. . . .

Overall, O’Neill’s latest novel is fun-loving with plenty of highly visual metaphors and simile. The author confessed that she did “have a soft spot for similes.” To give you an example of their visual quality, here is one my favourites: “When he exhaled, the cigarette smoke looked like a girl doing rhythmic gymnastics with a ribbon.” In fact, there were many scenes in Girl that I could easily see in another short animation like Claire Blanchet’s adaptation of O’Neill’s short story “The End of Pinky," which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last September.

This book will be a hit with many young readers, or any reader for that matter who enjoys living vicariously through ingénues who chase bad-boys for some intense short-term pleasure, even when it means long-term pain. The Girl Who Was Saturday Night serves up a whimsical, sensual adventure through Montreal's dark side, complete with criminals, bikers and brilliant psychiatric patients–a great escape for a hot August day.

Read more »