This week, I’m pleased to host award-winning author, Jeannette de Beauvoir.
JEANNETTE DE BEAUVOIR is an award-winning author, novelist, and poet whose work has been translated into 12 languages and has appeared in 15 countries. She explores personal and moral questions through historical fiction, mysteries, and mainstream fiction. She grew up in Angers, France, but now divides her time between Cape Cod and Montréal.
The Questions No One Wants To Answer
Most people, I’d guess, read fiction for pleasure and for escapism. We all share the drudgery of getting up in the morning, usually in the same place, and going through the same progression of actions: shower, dress, coffee, feed the cat or the kids, summon energy for the day ahead. And many of us have days that also tend to become rote: work, lunch, work, home. Drop kids off somewhere; pick kids up somewhere. Plan and execute a menu. Clean the house. There’s no question that finding a few hours to curl up and travel vicariously, to live an adventure, to meet fascinating people, is a great way to relieve the pressures of daily life.
And all of that repetitive activity can sometimes keep us from thinking too much about the Greater Questions of Life. We tend to face them only when they’re thrust in front of us: a death in the family, a friend arrested for a criminal activity, the decision to place an elderly relative in a nursing home. And that’s normal, I think: sometimes just getting through the day is enough without pondering life after death, the morality of cheating on income tax, the wrenching decisions made on the behalf of others. At the end of the day, picking up Socrates or Descartes or Kierkegaard to look for answers just isn’t an option.
Normal, yes. Healthy? Maybe not so much. I believe that we do need to think about these things, but maybe the person most likely to lead us there isn’t a philosopher—but a novelist.
It’s not a new idea. Storytelling has always been at the service of philosophy. Stories are used to reinforce cultural norms and principles in nearly every human society… and, often, to keep the monsters at bay. Fairy tales in particular help children explore dark places without any harm to themselves; and there’s a reason why so many of us read murder mysteries, stories with killing at their hearts.
Which is not to say that I begin my novels by asking myself, “hmm, which difficult principle shall I explore today?” Rather, I consider the things that twist my mind, and find a way to talk about them, assuming that if they do that to me they probably do it to other people as well.
Many years ago I picked up a newspaper and read about the arrest of John Demjanjuk, an auto worker accused of war crimes when, as a guard at the Sobibor concentration camp, he’d helped execute 27,900 Jews. What I remember most about the story was the interview with his adult son, who was loudly and constantly protesting his father’s innocence. Well, I thought, of course you would. You’d have to. Who could equate the warm kind father who provided for you and loved you and kept the monsters at bay when you were little—how could you possibly equate that man with someone who could commit war crimes? The mind boggles.
I thought about that man. A lot. About what you’d have to go through to accept that these two sides could live in the same person, a person you loved. And so I wrote a novel called The Illusionist in which my protagonist is called upon to do precisely that.
Because making “the” story into “a” story does two things: it allows us a little distance (it’s happening to the people in the novel, not to us) and it gives us the ability to think through some of these complex moral questions without the necessity of acting on them. Which means, perhaps, that when we are called to act, we’ll have had the luxury of thought already.
I touch on a similar question in my most recent novel, Asylum. In collusion with the government, the Catholic Church—mostly through its convents—performed cruel and abusive acts on children. My own personal experience of growing up in a convent school could not have been further away from what happened to these orphans: to me, nuns were women who encouraged critical thinking, who loved their charges wholeheartedly, who gave selflessly of themselves in the service of others. To learn that nuns (even if not the same ones) beat children, allowed children to be used for experimentation and consigned to death, did not care for children… this was too much for my heart to bear. And so I allow my protagonist, Martine, to deal with it, and I try to learn—through her—to live with the unsettling contradictions of life.
Storytelling affords us the luxury of dealing with monsters, both internal and external, in a way that defuses their power. The best storytellers reach into the human psyche to find archetypal fears and passions and bring them into the light. Novelist talk of betrayals and murder, of love and loss, of hatred and fear, and as we read their words we’re able to dip our toes into the waters of those Great Questions Of Life, find them cold, squeal a bit and pull the toe back out. Until the next time. And eventually, if we read enough, we’ll start incorporating these personal and moral ambiguities into our understanding of life, of ourselves, and of others.
Will that make us better people? I don’t know. But it will make us people who are more equipped to at least take on the questions when we’re forced to deal with them.
Not to mention giving us a great fictional ride in the meantime!
Martine LeDuc is the director of PR for the mayor’s office in Montreal. When four women are found brutally murdered and shockingly posed on park benches throughout the city over several months, Martine’s boss fears a PR disaster for the still busy tourist season, and Martine is now also tasked with acting as liaison between the mayor and the police department. The women were of varying ages, backgrounds and body types and seemed to have nothing in common. Yet the macabre presentation of their bodies hints at a connection. Martine is paired with a young detective, Julian Fletcher, and together they dig deep into the city’s and the country’s past, only to uncover a dark secret dating back to the 1950s, when orphanages in Montreal and elsewhere were converted to asylums in order to gain more funding. The children were subjected to horrific experiments such as lobotomies, electroshock therapy, and psychotropic medication, and many of them died in the process. The survivors were supposedly compensated for their trauma by the government and the cases seem to have been settled. So who is bearing a grudge now, and why did these four women have to die?
Not until Martine finds herself imprisoned in the terrifying steam tunnels underneath the old asylum does she put the pieces together. And it is almost too late for her…in Jeannette de Beauvoir’s Asylum.