This Quebecois classic takes place in a single day – 2 May 1942 – and mostly on one street. Working class Montreal, three years into World War Two. This is a Francophone neighbourhood where it just so happens that seven women are pregnant at once. Our central figure is “the fat woman”, never named, and the only pregnant woman who is truly happy about the impending arrival of her child. She lives with her husband and their two children, her mother-in-law, her brother-in-law, and her sister-in-law and her two children (the sister-in-law’s husband is away at war). It’s a crowded and chaotic household. Each member has their own fears, desires, and eccentricities and each is wonderful realized and brought to life by Tremblay. The whole household is watched over by the mysterious women next door who sit and knit and observe.
As most Canadians are well aware, Quebec is a unique entity in our country. Tremblay demonstrates the deep divides that existed in the 1940s between the French and English-speaking communities of Montreal. This divide is made even stronger by the war and the reluctance of many Francophones to fight for a country they did not feel connected to. (Let alone wanting to fight to defend England.) Family men were often excused from the army and we see the suggestion that this may have resulted in a few of the street’s pregnancies.
As I said, Tremblay writes his characters well. I was especially impressed by his writing of women, let alone pregnant women. He really captures so many of the complicated feelings surrounding pregnancy and motherhood. His characters are quirky and frustrating and endearing. The street comes fully alive on the page, from the cat-loving store owner on the corner, to the prostitutes who live upstairs.
The addition of the four knitting women next door is a strange one but adds a kind of timeless quality to the novel. They are something like a Greek chorus, present but unseen. They are uninvolved in the story but add a sort of timeless element to it. I’m not sure that it added much to the story on its own but I also understand that Tremblay revisited this street and many of the characters and so perhaps as a continuation throughout the series of books, it makes more sense.
Likewise, there are things here that don’t work as well from a modern perspective. There is a lot of focus on the physicality of women’s bodies and many of them are described as being fat (the fat woman just happens to be the fattest, I guess), including women who it seemed were not actually fat, just pregnant. Perhaps most uncomfortable of all is a scene of women riding the trolley and commenting on the Jewish neighbourhood they pass through. The novel was written in the 1960s so many of the sexist, ableist, and racist ideas at play here are not at all surprising, simply uncomfortable to read today.
Even as a Canadian, I’ve read very little out of Quebec so I’m glad to have struck this one off my list. For anyone interested in learning more about this part of Canada and our history, Tremblay’s work seems like a good place to start.
This book was translated from the original French by Sheila Fischman.