Small Glimpses of a Greater Constellation: Kuessipan by Naomi Fontaine

I’m back with another slight book full of gorgeous moments and understated beauty. These may very well be my favourite types of books.

Kuessipan is the debut novel of Innu writer Naomi Fontaine, and it was published in 2011, when she was only twenty-three years old. (The English-language edition, translated by David Homel, was published in 2013.) Written originally in French, this book is a series of vignettes based on the small community of Uashat, Quebec, where the author was born. The ancestral lands of the Innu extend through large areas of Labrador and eastern Quebec. Uashat means “the bay” in the Innu language, and the town is located along the St. Lawrence River, in one the northernmost areas to have a paved connection to the rest of Quebec’s road network.

Arsenal Pulp Press, 2013
Poster from the 2019 film adaptation

Naomi Fontaine has an eye for details, textures, and places, and her observations brim with empathy and thoughtfulness. Kuessipan at times reads like a memoir and at times like a cycle of poems. It does not have a traditional narrative, but instead offers disjointed moments in time and glimpses of understanding.

These stories walk on the thin edge of a blade, balancing between hope and despair. The feel of this book is gentle, tactile, almost precarious. The sense of place is strong; the details that Fontaine notices are basic but not obvious. She sketches out landscapes, homes, people, experiences, and feelings — bridging them with a sharp eye and acute insight, drawing lines and making connections. The result is a collection of snapshots that leave you feeling like you have been witness to the baring of souls.

When the wind is icy, no one goes out walking; car engines never stop running. At the end of Kamin Street, there’s a little girl with almond eyes. Raspberries grow behind her house in blue springtime when the asphalt dries. This is the centre of her world.”

Kuessipan, page 38

Certain themes recur: the natural world, motherhood, belonging and longing, sacred spaces, the tension between knowing something and feeling it. So much is captured in this handful of small moments. The point of view shifts from page to page, fluid like the ubiquitous lakes, the river, the water in the bay. Sometimes the voice speaks as a first person, the I intimate and confessional; sometimes it shifts into third person, observant and perceptive. Occasionally the voice speaks in the second person, its you affirming, alleging, revealing.

Kuessipan means “your move” or “your turn” in the Innu language. The book invites you consider the patterns of your own life, and also the patterns in the text. These individual stars expand into greater constellations, and it is up to the reader to do their part in piecing them together, recognizing the links and the shapes — in a sense, building the community.

There is a beauty and a heart-wrench to this book that makes me ache. It is a book that asks something of us, and those are truly the best books of all.

Somewhere before Tadoussac, caught between two mountains, is a lake that reflects the things of this Earth. On the bank, a dock and some canoes. A wooden cabin sending smoke into the air. No one swims in the lake. When the leaves redden, the lake bursts into the colour of flames. It burns. When the snow covers it completely, canoes disappear. Then the lake stops reflecting the jewel of blue heaven. Nothing but its pale skin and the thousands of grey spruce remain to speak of its beauty.

Even from a distance, you can see the lights. Of course it’s impossible to make out the bridge and the highways, the traffic lights and the lampposts. The lights of the Château Frontenac and the ones on top of Complex G. The house lights are scarcely visible, but they are part of the orange halo that forms in the sky. This is what the city has done.”

Kuessipan, page 42

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