Book review: The Douglas Notebooks

By Sean Sullivan

The Douglas Notebooks does not achieve what it sets out to do.

The book, written by Québécois author Christine Eddie, attempts to create a modern-day fable but embraces a very loose definition of the genre. A fable is typically a tale involving animal characters, a heavy emphasis on nature and an ending with a moral. The Douglas Notebooks is presented as a fable, but one of the only elements it has in common with fables is that it centres around nature.

The story is about Douglas Starling, who escapes a life of wealth and corruption to build himself a cabin in the woods and live off the land. He meets the love of his life, Éléna Tavernier, who fled a violent home. Romance ensues.

The English version of the novel was translated by award-winning translator and founding member of the Literary Translator’s Association of Canada Sheila Fischman and was released on March 22. The original French edition of Eddie’s debut novel was published in 2007 and won the 2008 Prix France-Québec, the 2009 Prix Senghor du Premier Roman Francophone and the 2010 Prix du Club des Irrésistible awards. Because of this, I had pretty high expectations, but was disappointed.

The story never allows the reader to become invested in the characters, and makes it difficult to believe in the setting or in the events that occur throughout the overly-simplistic plot. The story glosses over much of Éléna and Douglas’s relationship, forcing the reader to just accept their love. The book presents a shallow summary of a story without digging deeper.

The book leans too heavily on telling rather than showing, which is likely the result of Eddie trying to capture the succinct story telling style of a fable. However, this telling quickly becomes excessive. The novel suffers from the usual drawbacks that come from not showing: it prevents the reader from getting immersed in the story.

There is something almost poetic about the prose in The Douglas Notebooks, but certain word choices leave it filled with tired clichés and awkward metaphors and similes. The metaphors and similes are particularly cringeworthy, suggesting that some of the language has been lost in translation.

There are dozens of sentences that are downright ridiculous, and I can’t determine if that is a fault of the original text or of the translation. I was left wondering repeatedly whether the author was accidentally slipping into the realm of fantasy. However, the overly romantic descriptions of the forest are intertwined with the darker realities of life and the story includes a couple short, visceral descriptions of murder and childbirth which demonstrate Eddie’s adherence to a dark and realistic tone.

All in all, The Douglas Notebooks is a lacklustre read, but it thankfully adheres to one other important trait of fables: it is short.

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