On the Proper Use of Stars by Dominique Fortier

On the proper use of stars

Translated from French by Shelia Fischman

Published: 2010 by McClelland & Stewart
My copy: Bought on Kindle

Memorable quote: “As for me, I have gone to the end of the Earth, I have fallen into the void where there are no sea monsters or giant octopuses or mermaids or even God. I have found only night in that abyss, and of all the discoveries one can make, that is without a doubt the most dreadful”

It’s been a while since I read any polar fiction! I’m working through the canon (such as it is) at fairly swift rate and it is getting harder to come by, so any recommendations for other polar reads would be gratefully received! Though I wasn’t getting the withdrawal shakes badly enough to contemplate diving into the polar pulp pile (vampire-Hitler-plots-his-return-from-his-secret-Antarctic-base etc), I was very glad to stumble across this, the début novel from Candian writer Dominique Fortier. Originally published in Quebec as Du bon usage des étoiles, this historical novel draws inspiration from the  tragedy of Franklin’s ill-fated Arctic adventure of 1845 in search of the mythic Northwest passage. It’s a familiar story: many previous novelists, historians and musicians have already succumbed to the siren song of this expedition, an historical tale so fraught not only with doom but also with mystery – the sorts of narrative gaps and uncertainties that provide perfect fuel for the imagination. But, though flawed in some ways, Fortier’s interpretation holds its own amidst the crowd primarily due to the exquisite beauty of her language and imagery and the way she devotes equal space to the high drama of the freezing Arctic seas and the very different tensions – propriety, reputation and social advancement – of the Victorian drawing rooms that the explorers have left far behind.

The book reads less as a novel than as a series of beautifully crafted vignettes; the perspectives of multiple characters interwoven with real historical documents, not just letters and diary accounts but even Christmas recipes.  Franklin; his imperious and determined wife, Lady Jane; her niece Sophia Cracroft, and fictional crew member Adam Tuesday all lead the narrative at times, but the spotlight belongs to Francis Crozier, Captain of The Terror. Crozier’s increasing physical sufferings are counterpointed here with his emotional turmoil as he remains haunted by his seemingly unrequited love for Miss Cracroft. Fortier’s version of this romance is more quietly hopeful than many others, adding a further layer of poignancy to the inevitable tragic conclusion. Fortier has a real eye both for beauty, and for the desecration of beauty. I found myself equally moved – though in very different ways – by the awkward romance of Crozier and Sophy gazing into the starry night sky or by Crozier’s sense of shame as he views the debris field from the ships soiling the pristine ice that imprisons them.

Though short, this is not a simple read. There is little in the way of narrative linearity and, were the author not drawing on such a notorious historical tragedy, the book could easily feel aimless. The complexity of On the Proper Use of Stars derives partly from its multiple perspectives and frequent shifts from first person narrative, to third person, to interpolated document, and partly from Fortier’s language. While the very long sentences used in this book certainly make it feel more authentically Victorian, I did not always find the sense so easy to determine as it is in even the most tangled nineteenth-century triple deckers. Indeed, I often needed to reread certain paragraphs several times to understand them – although this could be a consequence of the translation more than anything else. And for every paragraph that didn’t quite flow there was another than I would re-read voluntarily to savour Fortier’s descriptions and her evocative mix of whimsy and foreboding. Uneven, yes, but wilfully so, and certainly a welcome addition to the necessarily dark world of Franklin-inspired creativity.

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