by Élisabeth Vonarburg
translated by Jane Brierley
This is the story of a woman in an alternate-universe Montréal who begins to have strange visions, and embarks on what turns out to be a quest into the north of Québec to uncover the truth behind her world. It’s a book dense with images and speculation, but at the same time presents a fast-paced narrative.
You can look at the book from a number of different angles. As being about identity, for example. Or about the mediation of differing realities. Or about views of deity. Or about gender. Or how these things interrelate. Published in 1995, it’s tempting to view it as a creative response to the political tensions of Québec at the time. You have Separatists (in the English translation; I don’t know what term was used in the original French) who have nothing to do with Québec sovereignty as we know it; you have suspicion of a Canadian government nothing like our Canada’s; you have a tense language situation nothing like our own. The ending of the book has largely to do with the peaceful resolution of a longstanding quarrel between a couple who have certain differences but nevertheless have more in common with each other than with anyone or anything else. So ... there are certain resonances, one might say.
I thought the book was exceptional and rewarding. Vonarburg’s writing is tight, direct, and yet also resonant. If science-fiction can be understood as visionary literature for the modern world, then Reluctant Voyagers is one of the more successful visions I’ve read.