Let us suppose that there once lived, in an invented town in Alberta’s real Peace River country, an invented family by the name of Garance, some of whose members were distinctly odd. Their oddness consisted in their having abilities that most people do not have. They were afflicted—or perhaps blessed is the word—with a talent for hearing other people’s thoughts, and a propensity for conversing with beings that other people could not see. One family member, mistrustful of these gifts, dismissed them as “strange thoughts,” or, when really disturbed, as “black moths.” Years after the story’s main action, it is found that the attics of local houses and public buildings are filled to bursting with vile-smelling dead moths.
If you have been able to follow this attempt at introduction so far, you are probably saying to yourself: Aha. Magic realism. If so, then you are right. The genre made famous by South American writers has been attempted before by Alberta authors, most successfully, perhaps, in Robert Kroetsch’s wonderful What the Crow Said. It is a genre that, for the right reader, can delight with the exuberance of its invention.
Autant, named for the town where the story takes place, is the work of Paulette Dubé, a writer who grew up in Legal, Alberta, and now lives in Jasper. Her story, though darker than Kroetsch’s, is certainly up to scratch when it comes to exuberant invention. It is also a thing unto itself, a peculiar combination of good humour and catastrophe that is not easy to describe.
The Garances are not your typical rural Alberta family, supposing such a thing exists. Nor are some of the other characters anyone you are apt to run into in this province. They include, for starters, both God and Coyote. When these two meet in a bar, each has a point that he wants to prove to the other. Each also has emissaries, rather inept ones, whom he intends to send down to earth to complicate the lives of the Garances and their neighbours. The cast also includes neighbours both good and dissolute and very large swarms of bees. The bees will intervene in the action, a break from their regular job, which is to fly around collecting stories for God—who has a taste for news but is too busy to do his own eavesdropping.
There are a great many characters and a lot of plot to keep track of in this very short novel, but for the most part the author holds it all together. It must be admitted that magic realism, which asks us to believe in the unbelievable, at least temporarily, is not to the taste of every reader. It is a genre that is best approached with a certain spirit of adventure, a certain willingness to be enchanted. In Autant, Dubé has created a world and a mythology to go with it. It is a gutsy performance.
—Merna Summers is an Edmonton writer.