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BookBrowse Reviews Vandal Love by Deni Y. Béchard

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Vandal Love

A Novel

by Deni Y. Béchard

Vandal Love by Deni Y. Béchard X
Vandal Love by Deni Y. Béchard
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  • Paperback:
    May 2012, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl
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A mystically powerful novel about the Quebec diaspora and creating identity in an unwelcoming landscape

"Haunted by a family that was impossible to grasp or let go" is a passage used to describe Isa, one of the central characters of Deni Béchard's debut novel, Vandal Love, but it could just as easily apply to many of the other strange and tortured characters who populate the pages of Béchard's eerie and eloquent novel.

The children of Hervé Hervé are born, "as if by biblical curse," alternately either "brutes or runts." Their peculiar fate seems natural, born as they are to a family, a father, and a land that is hardened and even warped by generations of hardship. Resistant to post-World War II change, deeply cynical of the United States, which has lured away so many other villagers, Hervé seems content to dig his heels into their small corner of Québec and slowly drink himself to death like the many others "whose wisdom came from suffering." He seems willing - even eager - to give away the runts of the family to other villagers but keeps the giants by his side, working them as hard as he himself worked.

Vandal Love tells the story of two different strands of Hervé's family. Jude is a giant with a talent for fighting (and a temper to match) and a love as clumsy as his body. Despite his father's disdain for the United States, Jude embarks on an odyssey that will take him all the way from Québec to the Deep South, where he supports himself by boxing. He fathers a child - the aforementioned Isa - who must struggle to find her own odd kind of family. In Part Two, François, a runt who never knew his father, at first seems destined to become a priest but soon discovers that his future lies in a different path, also in a land thousands of miles from where he started out. The often-failed struggle to define identity in the absence of a strong sense of place, of history, of home, lies at the center of both these narrative strands, which trace the brutal and beatific connections that tie these characters together.

Béchard's prose flows as smoothly and naturally as does the passing of time in his novel. Although his background is in journalistic writing, Béchard consistently demonstrates his facility with elegant and poetic descriptions of emotion and place, as in this description of François's son Harvey in rural Virginia: "He... lay down in a coffin of tall, cow-smelling grass, the sky above framed raggedly to his shape.... Crickets sawed all around him, so close he felt they would devour him in his sleep like piranhas."

Elements of Béchard's novel have a magical realist quality - the extremes of the characters' sizes, their prodigious appetites, the coincidences that bring them together. Its idiosyncratic characters and darkly strange worldview, however, will remind many readers of the gothic atmosphere of Joyce Carol Oates's novels. It's hard to believe that this skilled, often deeply moving novel is Béchard's first - readers will certainly be hoping for great things from this imaginative, original, elegantly lyrical but muscular new voice.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl

This review first ran in the August 8, 2012 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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