Black Bird

Black Bird

by Michel Basilieres

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With comic brilliance and a delight in the macabre, Michel Basilières holds a fun-house mirror up to a defining moment in Canadian history and reveals, among other things, a family having a very bad year.

Holed up in a shambling house at the base of Mount Royal is the family Desouche: three generations of English- and French-Canadians caught in the gears…  See more details below


With comic brilliance and a delight in the macabre, Michel Basilières holds a fun-house mirror up to a defining moment in Canadian history and reveals, among other things, a family having a very bad year.

Holed up in a shambling house at the base of Mount Royal is the family Desouche: three generations of English- and French-Canadians caught in the gears of a national emergency. Their world is dark and hard, but alive with hope and expectation. When one of the eldest, an Anglo Montrealer, dies at the hand of one of the youngest, a militant separatist, so begins a year of turmoil and change that culminates in the October Crisis.

Grave-robbing Grandfather consorts with prostitutes and mad scientists, loses an eye and gains a new vision. His disenchanted wife bonds with his canny pet crow. Mother sleeps her grief away through the seasons, while Father ineffectively schemes to get rich quick. Meanwhile, their twin children, Marie and Jean-Baptiste, find their personal ambitions clashing with their public actions as they derail each other at every turn.

In this wholly original novel alive with misfortune and magic, Michel Basilières uncovers a Montreal not seen in any other English-Canadian novel: a forgotten blue-collar neighbourhood in between the two solitudes. Gothic, outrageous, yet tender and wise, Black Bird is as liberating as the dreams of its wayward characters, and as gripping as the insurgencies that split its heart.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“This macabre, sometimes fantastical, often hilarious first novel…manages to be at once ghastly, farcical and shot through with a pathos that tugs about equally at mind and heart. Black Bird is a terrific read, an epic critique of and lament for the decades of rhetoric and rancour, and blood, that have yet to lead Quebec to the mythic prize of nationhood…. Vive le satirical livre!” — The Globe and Mail

“a stunning debut novel…wildly inventive and darkly funny…. Bravura plotting and comic talent are only the surface of Black Bird’s achievement. Basilières has the essential qualities of a first-rate satirist, in spades. He displays an abiding love for his characters, however awfully they behave, but his rage is equally inextinguishable…. His brilliant novel is an extended metaphor for the messy, intractable, essentially unbreakable web that history has made of Canada.” — Brian Bethune, Maclean's

“At first glance, [Black Bird] looks a little like a Canadian take on Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. But where Franzen depicts the decline of the nuclear family, Basilières gives us a core meltdown. . . . Spirited, clever [and] dead on.” — The Gazette (Montreal)

Black Bird rocks. An exuberant new Quebec voice that speaks for all of us living in the spaces in between.” — Susan Swan

“When someone tells you that a first novel is ‘brilliant’ or ‘stunning,’ they’re usually lying and they know it. But occasionally a book comes along that’s as good as the jacket cover blurb says it is. Michel Basilières’ first novel is a work of enormous love; it’s intelligent without the pirouettes, literate without showing off. And very funny. It’s that rare thing among novels, a book you should actually read twice.” — David Gilmour

Black Bird is a great, wonderful monster of a novel, from the history of Frère André’s black heart to the screeching of the crow, Grace, from its astounding descriptions of Montreal to its observations of the compulsions and frustrations of one Family Desouche, it ushers in a new, hilarious, wildly imaginative, powerful and heartfelt voice.” — Edward Carey

“If ever a book defied description it is Black Bird. Covering themes as big as Canada itself and as dangerous as the battle field of family life, it is outrageous, hilarious and surreal. It is a remarkable creation, brilliantly original.” — Mary Lawson

“The delightful, macabre nature of Michel Basilières’ novel doesn’t hide the real sweetness of a writer who so obviously loves his fellows, especially when they are at their worst. Basilières’ comic sensibility is as black and shining as a crow’s wing. I believe Lovecraft must be sitting up in his grave and grinning.” — Gail Anderson-Dargatz

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Product Details

Knopf Canada
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Random House
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2 MB

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Montreal, an island, placed a cemetery atop its mountain, capped that mountain with a giant illuminated cross and wove streets along its slopes like a skirt spreading down to the water. In this way, its ancestors hovered over the city just as the Church did, and death was always at the centre of everything.

* * * * *

Grandfather had one foot in the grave and the other on the shoulder of his spade. He pressed his weight on it; nothing. He stood on it, lifting himself completely from the earth -- still nothing.

“No use,” he said to Uncle. “The ground’s already frozen. The season’s over.”

Grandfather eyed the lights of the city below glowing through the leafless trees ringing the cemetery. A single large flash winked at him like a bulb or a star going out; seconds later a sound like an enormous kettledrum drifted up through the cold air. The revolving beacon of a skyscraper swung overhead, and then came another flash, and another boom. There was silence after that, except for the wind in the trees. And then sirens. Grandfather watched the regular flashes of police cruisers and ambulances progressing along the lines of light that shone out of the darkness. Cops. They were never anything but trouble. At least tonight, he thought mistakenly, they were someone else’s problem.

Cold and disappointed, the two men began the long walk home. Even if they could have paid for the bus that ran over the mountain, they couldn’t board at the cemetery gate, in the middle of the night, with shovels and sacks. As Grandfather watched Uncle preceding him, he realized the snow was just as much an impediment to their work as the frozen ground: Uncle was leaving a trail of footprints, and Grandfather must have been too.

The season had definitely come to an end. What would they do now? This winter wouldn’t be as easy as the last, when Grandmother’s death turned out to be a boon to him in so many ways, large and small. Small, because it meant one less person to feed. Large, because it allowed him to indulge his hostilities, his grudges against the neighbours, and his fondness for drinking, all under the guise of his grief. But that lasted only through the summer, for as soon as Labour Day passed, the anniversary of her death, everyone began to remark that it was time to return to business as usual; the holiday was over, get a grip. In fact they might have allowed him a longer period of licence if he hadn’t made it clear, after a certain amount of beer, that he’d not really been fond of her anyway, and what a relief it was turning out to be, being a widower.

This reaction surprised no one in the immediate family, but it was only after Grandmother’s death that his true nature became obvious to the neighbourhood. She’d spent most of her life covering up for him and keeping him from them. After all, she was one of them, born and bred in the quarter, where her family was known and liked. He was the outsider, the stranger, the unknown quantity. Which caused a great deal of curiosity in the beginning, and a great deal of trouble for her.

He’d never shown any respect for her friends or relatives, for anyone on the street, for anyone who might give him a job, or even for his own children. She’d married him because he’d made an effort to impress her and convince her of his sincerity, and she’d never before been shown that sincerity was as easily discarded as an empty cigarette package. The rest of her life had been spent trying to make up to her children for so carelessly choosing their father, and overcoming her own disappointment, which he seemed to insist on reinforcing daily. He had the habit of reading aloud from the newspaper the story of some other family’s tragedy and laughing at the details; of carelessly leaving pornographic magazines around the house where the children, her friends, and she could see them; of not replying to her questions.

She should have left him early on, but that would have meant returning to her parents’ house, since she had no resources of her own. And return was impossible, because although they would have taken her in gladly and quickly, never asking why, they’d silently assume they’d been right, that she was returning in failure and despair. She could fight her husband’s cruelty and indifference, a miserable struggle that would justify her life, but she couldn’t fight her parents’ certainty that she was incapable of a life without them. And in the end, the example of her strength in the face of his power was the legacy she would leave her children.

After Grandmother had received the last rites from Father Pheley, she summoned enough strength to look her husband in the face and, heedless of the presence of so many others, gave him her last words:

“Your heart is so cold it will lead you to hell. At least I don’t have to fear meeting you again.”

Grandfather couldn’t bring himself to scowl or scoff, as he always had at any remark of his wife’s. Not because of the presence of the others, or because she was dying, but because he still harboured his childhood fear of priests. The ensuing moment of silence, as her spirit left her with a smile on her face, gave him the chance to absorb one of the great lessons of his life: even in the presence of death and the entry into heaven, disagreeable people remain disagreeable.

Because he needed a cook and a housecleaner, Grandfather remarried quickly enough to cause eyebrows to raise, especially considering the difference in years between himself and his second wife. If his children had objections, in any case they kept silent. And the neighbours’ speculations, typical in such cases, were off target. Grandfather had not been having an affair behind Grandmother’s back -- not that it was beyond him, but he’d never bothered to hide his infidelities -- nor had he lost his head, as foolish older men have been known to do. Neither had his new wife married him for his money, since he didn’t have any. But it wasn’t surprising that some might think so; although the family was never seen to spend lavishly, none of them were ever seen to have a job, either. And whenever the neighbours couldn’t understand how someone could live in complete poverty, they assumed that person must be secretly rich after all. Under the mattress, in secret bank accounts, buried in the backyard: there was no limit to the hiding places, no matter how far-fetched, suggested by those unwilling to take the evidence at face value. Once the idea was planted, all common sense was discarded in the effort to bolster their belief, because nothing is harder to let go than the suspicion that someone else is guilty of hiding something.

From the Hardcover edition.

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