Canada Reads Along: And the Birds Rained Down

and-the-birds-rained-downby Jocelyne Saucier

Translated by Rhonda Mullins

ISBN 978-1-77056-333-9

“They had left behind lives they had closed the door on. No desire to go back to them, no desire other than to get up in the morning with the feeling of having a day all to themselves and no one to find fault with that.”

Deep in the woods of Northern Ontario, three old men have made a home for themselves, building a community around their fierce desire for the right to self-determination and the ability to choose how they will live out their days. Hovering on the periphery of their world are two younger men, the proprietor of an old hotel long abandoned by its owner, and his accomplice, a marijuana grower. They are the gate-keepers who protect the old men’s solitude, but they are not prepared for the two women who penetrate their defences. The younger woman, known only as Ange-Aimee, is a photographer racing against time to document the last survivors of the Great Fires that ravaged Northern Ontario in the early twentieth century. However it is not she, but Marie-Desneige, an elderly woman who has lived her entire life imprisoned in a mental institution, who truly shakes the world the old men have built for themselves in the woods.

Living out in the woods, the old men have grown a little too comfortable with death, who has become a familiar friend. Never one to accept complacency, Death is a shadow character in her own right, stepping in to shake up their lives, and give them something to fear losing. And the Birds Rained Down refuses to be contained by the boundaries that normally circumscribe our vision of the lives of the elderly. Rough living, self-sufficiency, love, and even sex are all within the bounds of the possible in Saucier’s world. The late-life romance is unexpectedly sweet, but not without its complications or concerns.

And the Birds Rained Down is certainly a meditation on aging and mortality, but also a powerful articulation of the desire to control one’s fate. Though the strychnine poison the old men keep on hand represents their belief in their right to die on their own terms, it also helps them maintain the sense that they are in control of their lives. The desire to make their own choices about how to live out their days transcends age and gives this novel a broader appeal.

In terms of narrative structure, And the Birds Rained Down is one of the most interesting and well-crafted books in this year’s Canada Reads competition. And the Birds Rained Down has a strong but unique style, employing an unusual structure that changes narrators, and even mixes first and third person narration in the shifts between sections. The plot of this short novel moves at a slow burn as you settle in with the old men out in the woods. Saucier patiently layers on additional elements, including the arrival of Marie-Desneige, and the historical exposition of the Great Fires, as well as the role Ted played in those events. It doesn’t seem like much at first, but it slowly adds up to a quietly powerful novel.

Given this year’s Canada Reads theme of breaking barriers, many people were surprised by the early elimination of Intolerable by Kamal al-Solaylee, and The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King. Elaine Lui admitted that on literary merit alone, And the Birds Rained Down might well be the best book in this year’s debates. But today, the theme of breaking barriers finally caught up to And the Birds Rained Down, which simply isn’t as issue-oriented as the other titles in the competition. In an unusual, near-unanimous vote, all of the panelists except for Wainwright voted against And the Birds Rained Down. Craig Kielburger had voted against Ru for the past two days in a row, but broke from that stance today with a moving statement about how Cameron Bailey’s defense shook his prejudices about what an immigrant narrative should look like. Tomorrow, Ru will face-off against When Everything Feels like the Movies in the final round of Canada Reads 2015.

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You can watch the Canada Reads debates on the CBC website

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