Gisèle Villeneuve’s works straddle languages, informed by her native Montreal and by Alberta, where she has lived for nearly 40 years. Her last novel, Visiting Elizabeth, was a hybrid English–French work that seesawed from one language to the other, often in the same sentence. The stories in her new collection, Rising Abruptly (winner of the 2017 Georges Bugnet Award for fiction), go further, straddling not only French or, in one story, a tourist’s version of Malay, but also the language of climbing mountains—with phrasing that is often fractured and refracted, as if the narrator is scrambling for solid footing. There’s something fresh and raw about it all.
“Nuit Blanche with Gendarme” opens in a Calgary apartment where a sister recounts being passionately swept up by a mountain in Kananaskis. The double play is evident throughout. The brother’s kitchen counters stand in for rock ledges. His sister’s unquenchable thirst stands in for her newfound desire to climb. The effect is disquieting. “I was contemplating that mountain and, tout de suite, I knew. I knew I needed the vertical line not to fall. I knew the vertical line was the place to quiet your mind. There, in the silence among stones, I knew, I simply knew that I would find peace of mind at last.”
“Jagged Little Peak,” with a nod to Alanis Morrissette, depicts Jo on her 40th birthday soloing up a difficult limestone rock face, fretting over her teenage daughter’s reckless partying but unable to admit to her own recklessness. During the climb, Jo contemplates their mother–daughter bond: “I looked at my belly in disbelief the day I strained to buckle up my harness over you. The thing growing inside me that took control. I could no longer self-arrest. An internal rope tied us together.…”
These are not your typical alpinist accounts. The climbers are mothers, sisters and sexagenarians—the stories often focused on loved ones or filtered through the lenses of emotion and heightened perception. Desire, dread and madness run like an undertow, often threatening to overtake the characters. In “Benighted on Mighty Mount Royal” two young cousins spend an otherworldly night in a freak snowstorm on Montreal’s Mount Royal, where they break into the summit chalet. This is an urban park, mind you, and yet its perils feel as fraught and adventurous as the Himalayas that will haunt the girls later in the linked story “Nepal High.”
These stories can be emotionally wrought, as off-kilter as their mountains, yet Villeneuve invites us into this thorny, exposed terrain with confidence. As a climber I found it gratifying to see women’s desires so strongly expressed. Rising Abruptly is a complex, satisfying collection that bears reading again.
—Elaine Morin co-edited the anthology Writing Menopause (2017).