Monique Proulx’s work might best be described as curiously flawed fiction filled with prose of inflated exuberance. Wildlives, her new novel, is no exception.
With each new chapter we are gradually introduced to a densely packed landscape of contradictions (variously described either as an abyss or a paradise), as well as a wide array of its inhabitants, whose foreboding present and past lives are to be played out in the coming chapters.
At the heart of all this is Lila Szach, part landowner/matriarch and part “sorceress.” Claire (brief lover of Jim, the black nurseryman who brings her flowers and compost) is a writer who, curiously, is putting together the pieces of a story much like the one we’re reading. Jeremie is a child obsessed with Harry Potter. Simon (Jeremie’s uncle and Lila’s young lover) comes to the aid of Violette, a victim of breast cancer, whose story “landed so powerfully on Simon that he lost the power of speech.”
Standard semi-exotic stuff so far, as interior lives and exterior landscapes modify each other and vie for the reader’s attention. There is the requisite darkness revealed in slow stages, personal histories and agonies to be resolved, and a looming, unseen threat that might bring further challenges, pain, and suffering to both the innocent and the guilty. To Proulx’s credit, she admirably balances much of this complex layering of multiple characters, setting, and storyline. It’s a clever high-wire act of structural equilibrium that we have to respect for what it dares to attempt.
Unfortunately, what too often brings the novel crashing to the ground is an annoyingly dense and purple prose style that mistakes volume for creative clarity, overdone imagery and metaphors for depth of insight. The accumulating weight of Proulx’s diction achieves a kind of verbal clutter, and inevitably distracts the reader from the story and its characters. We can’t see or feel them inside this thick coating of words, which pushes us away rather than inviting us into its core. It’s a use of language that valiantly reaches for a spiritual and psychological transformation, but falls short.