Reviewed by Zoe Whittall
Piers Le Gris is a Canadian thriller writer living in exile who rents a room in a once-grand mansion in the French city of Avignon and develops an affectionate friendship with his older landlady. Nelly is an independent, elegant woman widowed after a short marriage and haunted by her first, unrequited love. Nelly is somewhat enamoured of Piers, and undone by her feelings. They have their platonic Friday-night chats over wine and routine moments at the breakfast table. Piers works at night, holed up in his room drinking espresso and churning out page-turners heavy on plot and low on adjectives for an editor in London. Piers keeps his cards close to his chest, and we don’t know why his name doesn’t match the one on his passport.
Enter Magali, the 17-year-old daughter of Nelly’s first cousin, in the Lolita-like role. “At seventeen, Magali was sure adults were little more than prisoners of their addictions, families, and jobs, which is why they liked to lecture the young. More of them had taken a wrong turn somewhere, or were convinced they had.”
Pier’s Desire, by Marianne Ackerman, McArthur & Company, 323 pages, $29.95
When Magali arrives to attend university and board with Nelly, she immediately piques Piers’s interest, which Nelly just as immediately resents. Magali has a teenaged suitor, Mouloud, a young Moroccan who is the son of her grandfather’s hired labourer. After she ends their relationship, he follows her to Avignon, where he gets in trouble and violence ensues.
All three main characters have secrets, all have made mistakes with love and all regret previous choices, as they negotiate their single beds and single rooms in the large house, circling each other both by accident and on purpose.
“ Ackerman is adept at creating a scene, writing keen dialogue and setting up action”
It is not surprising to me that Ackerman has a background in theatre. The house comes alive as though it is a set. Ackerman is adept at creating a scene, writing keen dialogue and setting up action. The trouble with a novel that reads much like a play is that it is often difficult to get to know all the characters well; it feels as though there is too much going on at once to truly engage deeply with all those involved.
Magali appears as a sketch of a girl, without much that sets her apart from any other young, beautiful 17-year-old, and her choices are often a little convenient for the plot that drives the back story, the mystery of Nelly and Magali’s grandfather during the Second World War. Piers is present enough to keep the reader intrigued, and his parental concern and affection for both Magali and Mouloud make him somewhat distinct from the cliché of an older man pining for a teen girl. Nelly is drawn expertly; her passages are compelling and richly presented. When she writes a memoir about her first love, there are breathtaking moments of authenticity.
Though the novel is set in the final months of 1999, history roots the characters, both Piers’ obsession with the 14th century and Nelly’s memories of the Second World War. Past and present narratives often weave together beautifully, with themes that echo through the years, of the choices of youth and the repercussions in later years.
But while history often enriches, especially the descriptions of Avignon’s impressive architecture and narrow stoned streets, there are moments when the text becomes bogged down with textbook-like historical details. The second paragraph of chapter three begins with “Civilization advanced slowly,” followed by almost two pages of historical descriptions of the papal years. While Piers “never tired of expounding new details from his ongoing research,” readers may not be as interested in the fine print, and a tighter edit might have eased the flow of information into a more seamless story.
Zoe Whittall’s most recent novel, Holding Still For As Long As Possible, has just been optioned for a film adaptation.
Piers, the solitary writer, is holed up in an atmospheric (read: run-down) establishment in Avignon owned by Nelly Reboul. Enter Magali, the 17-yearold relative of the proprietress, who shows up unexpectedly on her doorstep complete with her dangerous romantic admirer in tow, the sometimes drugged-out, often erratic poet and obsessive lover Mouloud.
As the story unwinds to reveal secrets of love, betrayal and misunderstanding, Piers and Magali reach an understanding about themselves, what they truly want and what that means for the future. With contributions from grandfathers, drug dealers and the angel Gabriel, the plot thickens and bubbles in ways that surprise.
Providing characters who pop off the page fully realized, Ackerman’s story insinuates itself into the imagination. Ackerman manages to weave several different strands throughout this narrative of pursuit. There is the complicated triangle of Piers, Mouloud and Magali, but an even more significant triangle begins to manifest itself as the action unravels – that of Nelly, Piers and Roland, Nelly’s lover from the Second World War.
Roots in the Second World War threaten the expectations and stability of Nelly’s contemporary world as she begins to reminisce. As Piers writes against deadline on his novel, Nelly begins to write her own story in an old book that she leaves out for Magali to read. These layers of secrets peel back to reveal something redemptive for the characters who have the most to lose by them.
What Ackerman does so well in this novel is create dynamic characters we can care about, without losing any of the subtlety of the narrative. The way each of the narrative strands is woven together is deftly accomplished. The war-time past and subsequent disappointment of Nelly, the tempestuous entanglement of Magali and Mouloud, and Piers’ stumbling about in the no man’s land between his monk-like existence as a writer and the unwritten world that he is forced to interact with, all come together in an original and strange ending that relates desire and its aftermath to something like grace.
Heather Craig is a poet and writer based in Grand Bay-Westfield.
Telegraph-Journal. Fredericton, NB.
MEREDITH DIAS bookblog May 20-24, 2010
Piers Le Gris, a rather ascetic writer of pulp fiction, is boarding at widow Nelly Reboul’s house in Avignon while researching his next novel. When Nelly’s young niece, Magali, moves in, her presence upsets the precarious balance in the household. Her presence stirs up repressed desires (in Piers) and memories (in Nelly). It is her presence that forces various characters to confront what they would rather deny. She herself is entangled in a bizarre love triangle between stormy Moroccan Mouloud and the enigmatic Piers.
Piers’ Desire is, above all else, an exploration of “hopeless love” (177). There is Mouloud’s hopeless love for Magali, Nelly’s hopeless love for Roland, and Piers’ hopeless love for Magali. This is, to put in Magali’s words, “a family with no history of love” (202). These characters find solace in one another, often substituting one for the other–as if people were interchangeable, as if some displaced outburst of sexual expression could fill the gnawing void left behind by unfulfilled obsession.
The writing broods, contemplates, philosophizes. It reminisces. Ackerman has managed, with relatively few words, to create a story that is simultaneously dreamlike, with frequent (sometimes jarring) shifts in perspective to keep the reader alert, and Gothic in tone. Dark obsessions and unresolved feeling preside here. The reader must pay close attention not to the climactic events of the story, but its strong undercurrents, which pull relentlessly at Piers, Magali, Nelly, and Mouloud. http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/103386305
HOUR (Montreal) April 22, 2010
Confounded father figures
by MJ Stone
Montreal author Marianne Ackerman takes us to the real south of France to explore contentious love
When Marianne Ackerman appears at this year’s Blue Metropolis Literary Festival, she’ll be caught in the tumult of unrequited love. Her latest book, Piers’ Desire, set in the Avignon region in the south of France, is the tale of an aging writer and his 17-year-old muse, and it has all the trappings of a Nabokov novel.
Like Humbert Humbert, Piers Le Gris is a boarder. Both men are intellectuals: Humbert is a scholar and Le Gris is a writer. Where Humbert pines for Dolores, the daughter of his landlady, the object of Piers’ affection is Magali, the 17-year-old niece of his landlady. But Ackerman is quick to dismiss the similarities between her novel and Lolita as merely superficial: “Although Piers is shaken by Magali’s beauty and youth, Magali also brings out Piers’ paternal inklings.” Something that Humbert only pretends to feel.
Piers relives a blast from the past when the teenager moves into the boarding house. “Piers is changed by his encounter with the young girl,” says Ackerman. “He has a daughter he hasn’t seen in years and is unsettled by Magali’s loveliness and sexiness, but at the same time he is also flooded with concern about Mouloud, Magali’s former lover, a young Moroccan labourer who paints, plays in a band, writes poetry and pines to win back his ex-girlfriend’s affection.”
Ackerman began the book while living in the south of France, where she lived for six years until 2004. When asked if she felt that she had to be extra sensitive when designing a strong Moroccan character in a post-9/11 world, Ackerman says that she began writing the novel before the events of September 11th, explaining, “I felt it was impossible to write about the south of France without referring to the influence of Arab culture upon the region.”
THE GAZETTE (Montreal) April 17, 2010
Unrequited love in Avignon
Tension between opposing forces gives novel its energy
By Donna Bailey Nurse
Marianne Ackerman sets her latest novel in the city of Avignon during the final months of 1999. The backdrop, however, is history: the 14th-century period during which the capital of Christendom transferred from Rome to Avignon. These were the years in which the Florentine poet Petrarch (1304-1374) lived in Avignon, joined the Franciscan Order and served as a clerk for the Papal Court. We celebrate Petrarch for Il Canzioniere, his poems expressing his unrequited love for a young married woman named Laura.
Many aspects of Petrarch’s experience echo throughout the life of our hero, Piers Le Gris, a writer of popular English thrillers. Piers rents a room in a boarding house near the Papal Palace. The home is owned by Nelly Reboul, an elegant, aging widow who is secretly in love with him. Piers sticks to a disciplined, monk-like schedule: He divides his days between sleeping, researching and studying Avignon’s Catholic history. He writes by night. In the late afternoon, Piers and Nelly sit out in the yard, or in front of the fire, sipping nut wine. There, she enthralls him with stories of France after the Second World War.
For several years, their days keep this easy rhythm. Things change, however, when Nelly takes in a relative, the beautiful Magali, who is enrolled at the university in Avignon. Piers is immediately drawn to the girl. As with Petrarch’s, Piers’s life is defined by writing, romance and religion. Few people realize he is an ordained priest who has turned to the literary life after ending a love affair. Magali arouses in him the old passion, though he doubts she can ever return his feelings.
Unrequited love is the novel’s overriding theme: Not only does Piers pine for Magali, the girl has recently ended her own relationship with Mouloud, a Moroccan who continues to obsess over the affair. Meanwhile Nelly resents Piers’s obvious attraction to Magali.
And yet we sense there is more to Nelly’s story. The fascinating facts unfold in a memoir she begins to write. It opens during her teenage years and gives an account of her involvement with the Resistance in St. Cecile during the Second World War. In those years, Nelly adopts the code name Murielle and falls in love with Roland, an older man, also a member of the movement. Roland’s true identity comprises a central mystery of the novel.
One of Ackerman’s concerns is the thin line between fiction and reality. Piers’s preoccupation with realistic detail leads him to contrive situations – often quite comical – to serve his literary purposes. For a book titled The Faithful Husband, he answers a personal ad requesting a man to participate in a “discreet sexual liaison.” Not surprisingly, neither the woman nor the circumstance matches the ideal of his imagination.
Much of the energy of the novel derives from the tension between opposing forces: fact and fiction; actual and supernatural; Catholic and Muslim; young and old, and, especially, past and present. Avignon – in particular its architecture – emerges as a main character. Ackerman vividly sketches the rooming house at 9 rue de Griffons, the university grounds, the Papal Palace, the churches, cafés and restaurants – the rough streets where Mouloud plays guitar and smokes hash. Even so, we never feel much more than observers. The personality of the buildings, however beautiful, and of the city it self, somehow eludes us. Ackerman often fails to penetrate the façade.
She asks us to absorb a great many facts – too many, I think, and too fast. We wish she might slow down, give us time to become more intimately acquainted with people and places. This flaw is partly a consequence of a teeming cast, and partly the fault of her omniscient narrator. Whenever Ackerman employs a first-person perspective, however, she succeeds wonderfully. Piers’ Desire is a little too brisk, and a little too crowded, yet overall it is charming and romantic – an evocative read.
Marianne Ackerman launches Piers’ Desire on Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Hôtel Delta Centre-Ville, 777 University St. Free admission.
Donna Bailey Nurse is a Toronto writer and editor.
Matters of Hart (novel, 2005)
“Beautifully written…imbued with beauty and longing” – Globe and Mail.
“Storytelling at its best” – M.J. Stone in Hour
“Deft and moving” – The Montreal Gazette
Jump (novel, 2000)
“Jump is charming and witty, stylish and anxious, a clever portrait of the endless crise identité that is life in Montreal.” – Joe Fiorito, author of The Song Beneath the Ice
“An authoritative and engaging dispatch from Quebec’s unique crucible of the personal and the political.” – Globe and Mail
“Ackerman’s Jump has an acerbic wit that will make Montrealers squirm, nod knowingly and laugh out loud.” – The Gazette, Montreal.
“A spirited family romp [that] commands the reader to follow it through to the end.” – Toronto Star
“[Ackerman] has created sympathetic, troubled, interesting characters, just the sort whose hearts propel the city’s pulse.” – Quill & Quire
L’Affaire Tartuffe, or The Garrison Officers Rehearse Molière, (play) Signature Editions, Winnipeg
“…a theatrical achievement of epic proportions….L’Affaire Tartuffe may well be considered an important milestone in the history of theatre in Montreal in either of its two languages.” — The Suburban
“It’s a play of sweeping scope, Shakespearean ambition, worthy intentions and delicious flashes of sniping wit. And it takes its cue from an actual event. In 1774, British garrison officers performed two Molière plays in Montreal.” — The Montreal Gazette
“A more timely political piece of stagecraft would be hard to imagine. The Bloc would hate it. So would the Reform Party. The mainstream feds should go down on their knees and wish they’d siphoned off some of it for their enfeebled campaign. — The Toronto Star
“A magnificent play, a real tour de force.” — La Presse