By Céline Huyghebaert
Translated by Aleshia Jensen
259 pages, $23
Remnants, the English translation of Céline Huyghebaert ’s 2019 Governor General’s Award-winning autofictional novel Le drap blanc, is full of holes. A bookworm infestation in Huyghebaert’s apartment has “obliterated five years of memories,” chomping their way through her journals and photo albums from the time before, during, and after her father’s death. Ghost stories are always full of holes, but Remnants is more than a novel about the aftermath of loss. It’s an exploration of the many losses we suffer in life—losses of ourselves, and of each other.
Remnants is Huyghebaert’s investigation of her father’s life: a complicated, remote, often angry man, from whom she was mostly estranged by the end of his life. This work is necessarily fragmented. Photographs are lost, belongings are thrown out. Her father’s birth and marriage certificates have gone missing entirely. What she assembles instead is a subjective, multifaceted, multi-formatted, often contradictory record that “[allows] multiple versions of the story to exist.”
In short: we are many people to many people. In a dream, Huyghebaert writes, “I grab his arm, the one he hits my mother with,” yet her youngest sister insists he never hit any of them. Much of Remnants is composed of transcribed dialogues between Huyghebaert and her family; these are actually staged readings of earlier conversations, in which Huyghebaert invites her conversational partner (e.g. the youngest sister) to change a word or a sentence or their whole perspective as they will. Does this willingness to strike the worst from the record weaken her project? Perhaps. But this grace is not (only) for her father, who is dead, and beyond needing it. It is also for her and for her family. The revisits, revisions, and redactions—in this one small way, they are empowered to change the past.
A multivalent form is required to create a multivalent image. By design, Remnants often feels like a walk through a gallery exhibition more so than a novel. In another section, she asks people who never met her father to complete psychological profiles for him. The results—like Remnants as a whole—are sometimes funny, sometimes profound, sometimes deeply sad. When the form eventually morphs into overt fiction, it feels inevitable. It is like Magritte’s painting, Man in a Bowler Hat, in which, Huyghebaert reflects, had it been painted “before the dove flew by […] there’d be a hole instead of a face, a big black hole without a nose, mouth, or eyes.” The dove is Magritte’s gift to us; the fiction is Huyghebaert’s gift to herself, grace in place of a reconciliation that will now never come. The titular white sheet (in the original French) refers to the morgue bed where Huyghebaert tries to touch her father’s body but cannot. Here, in her own book—for a moment, at least—she can.