Old lady on a train? Jocelyne Saucier follows up her ‘cult bestseller’ with a mysterious journey across Northern Ontario
|Toronto Star 11 Jun 2021 at 06:11|
Jocelyne Saucier’s new novel, “And Miles to Go Before I Sleep” (published in Quebec last year and translated from the French by Rhonda Mullins), is seemingly predicated on a mystery: what happened to Gladys Comeau? As the novel’s opening paragraph establishes, “On September 24, 2012, Gladys Comeau climbed aboard the Northlander and was never again seen in Swastika, which is not even a town, not even a village, just a community along the railroad line.” It’s a powerful opening, which immediately raises questions in the reader’s mind — Who is this Gladys Comeau? Why did she leave? Why did she never return? — that will drive them deep into the novel.
It doesn’t take long, though, before even the most casual reader will realize they have been somewhat misled: “And Miles to Go Before I Sleep” isn’t really a mystery, at least in the way the word is usually used. There’s no crime: seventy-year-old Gladys boards the train of her own free will, but her secrecy, especially to her neighbours and her close friends, raises the alarms. The fact that she has left her mid-fifties daughter, given to spells of depression and suicide attempts, exacerbates their concerns.
The more we learn about Gladys, the more we begin to understand her journey, which has her hopping from train to train through Northern Ontario, seemingly without direction or plan. Trains have always been part of Gladys’ life: she was, apparently, born aboard a train, and spent her childhood on one of the school trains that criss-crossed the north, bringing education to children in the small, resource-based communities. But why this trip? Why now? And why does she befriend the much younger Janelle during part of her journey?
These questions are similar to those which underpinned Saucier’s previous novel, “And The Birds Rained Down,” a meditation on aging and identity set in the forests of Northern Ontario. That novel, Saucier’s fourth, was the first Canadian book to win the prestigious Prix des Cinq Continents de la Francophonie, was a competitor on Canada Reads in 2015, and was adapted for film in 2019. (Not bad for a book which her publisher refers to as a “cult bestseller.”)
While “And Miles to Go Before I Sleep” isn’t a typical mystery, it is, at heart, an investigation, sometimes literally, and sometimes philosophical in nature. The unnamed narrator, who has set out to write a straightforward chronicle of Gladys’ journey, is overwhelmed by the scale of this seemingly small story, “too many facts gathered, too many anecdotes collected, too much of everything.” He also finds himself drawn into the story, as both a participant and an observer.
His experience presages that of the reader, who will find themselves caught up, first in the larger, surface questions of Gladys’ journey, and the novel, only to become consumed, overwhelmed, with less obvious, though more significant, queries. With a wry humour and a detached, almost journalistic approach to the events, Saucier investigates the nature of love, and loss, of family and community, what we owe to one another, and what we are owed. “And Miles to Go Before I Sleep” is a haunting reminder of what makes us human, and that it is the questioning, as much as the answers, that keeps us alive.