The Body's Place|
by Elise Turcotte Translated by Sheila Fischman
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|No Body's Place for Love
by Heather Birrell
The rape and murder of young girls preys on the public imagination like no other assault on collective ideals of decency and morality. And when such aberrations jump from the confines of our TV screens and explode in our neighbourhoods, as was the circumstance for Torontonians in the recent case of 10-year-old Holly Jones, we are forced to wrestle with their unfathomability in more immediate and disturbing ways. Elise Turcotte's heroine in The Body's Place is a 15-year-old girl named HelFne who has become obsessed with such brutal crimes. Her obsession webs out into all areas of her life when the body of a recently disappeared girl is found on an island in a river near her home: "Who can know what happens¨and why it happens¨between the moment when a girl walks out of her house, smiling and wearing new clothes to go to a party with her friends, or quite simply to buy some bread, or to run away from home in anger, and the moment when she's found dead and naked on the shore of a river, or buried under a pile of garbage, or carved up at the bottom of a quarry."
This is not new fictional territory. The bestselling The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, which appeared last year to critical acclaim, has as its narrator the 14-year-old Susie Salmon, who observes the aftermath of her rape and murder from heaven. In contrast, Lynn Crosbie's controversial pastiche novel, Paul's Case (1997) a fictionalization of the events surrounding Paul Bernardo's crimes, attempts to grasp the workings of the rapist and murderer's mind. And recently, Nancy Lee linked the stories in her debut story collection, Dead Girls, with the lurking threat of a real-life serial killer haunting Vancouver's downtown eastside.
The Body's Place opens with HelFne's sense of something misplaced, untidy; a foreboding that comes to fruition with the announcement of the body's discovery. From the outset, we are immersed in her consciousness as she attempts to come to terms with a world where children and women are constantly vulnerable and sex is perpetually linked with violence. This sense of vulnerability is compounded by her parents, whose relationship is one of unexplained silences, strange fits and starts and grim warnings. "Life is a constant danger," says Viviane, her mother, and both parents caution her to "Be careful, you're a girl." It is understandable then, that as HelFne deals with her almost asphyxiating need to understand how the dead girl must have felt, that she herself develops what can only be labelled "issues" around her own body, and sex in general. She craves male companionship, and yet, when she finds it, in the form of a boy named Thomas who went to school with the dead girl, she is both titillated and repelled by his sexual advances. Her body, she confesses, is "booby-trapped like a minefield." In The Lovely Bones Sebold offers her narrator and victim, Susie, a chance to experience an actual lovemaking experience, as opposed to the violent rape she endured at the hands of her murderer. This, while moving, is perhaps an overly redemptive twist, and the type of cathartic moment completely missing from The Body's Place. HelFne's despair is (at times without necessity) relentless, and when she finally has sex, she endures the act as she would an unwelcome invasion, as she does most of the intimate (and even not so intimate) moments in her life.
Where The Body's Place both succeeds and stumbles is, for want of a better word, in its "moodiness". Turcotte manages, through her airy, anaesthetized tone, to give us a genuine sense of the state of HelFne's head and heart. Although this is a third person narration, and does not always remain crouched within the protagonist's point of view, it does stay consistently true to her disposition. HelFne's fixation with the dead girl splinters her attention, prevents her from making decisions, and heightens her feelings of protectiveness towards her two siblings (the older Lisa, age thirteen, and the kindergartner Samuel) but it does not blunt her sense of observation and heartbreaking teenage naivete. Her analysis of a co-worker: "He thinks he has grasped the depths of the human soul. But he chews his gum with a look on his face like that of a lost animal." Her thoughts on first love: "...it's as if you've been lifted off the ground and released all at once."
Unfortunately, there are times when Turcotte's sentences themselves have the feel of weighty teenaged aphorisms; overwrought, melodramatic and vague. At one point the three children "collapse under their own laughter. Under the house that is falling apart. Under the ruins. Under the vast, black, wordless unknown." References such as these to HelFne's parents' disintegrating relationship never clearly evoke the nature of the problems in the home. Equally puzzling is the ending of the novel, a calamitous shocker that jerks us out of HelFne's sensibility and seems unfounded in earlier scenes and revelations. Still, what Turcotte manages to capture, with her lyrical, haunted voice, is a brand of teenage alienation and near-unendurable anguish that stems from a tragedy it pains us all to contemplate. ˛