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Last edited: 23/07/2021
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Ilona van Mills
Sugarmilk Falls
360 pages
A Novel by a Dutch writer about my favourite country, Canada; that can't go wrong I thought. The novel starts awkwardly, with the cumbersome framing device of an anonymous visitor joining a small group huddled around a cabin fire one night, asking questions about the town's secrets. Van Mil prefers skipping back and forth to writing chronological narrative, and it takes her a good 100 pages before she into her real story: that of Mathieu Souris, the priest, and Marina Grochowska, the schoolteacher. True to his name, which in French means "mouse," Souris is a man easily cowed; Grochowska, a Holocaust survivor, is more than a match for him. They fall in love in a postwar Paris café, where she's waitressing to keep herself from starving and he's wandering to fill his last days in the army.

Mathieu falls head over army boots for Marina's strange blend of fragility and toughness, and he proposes marriage within a few days. But she has too many secrets that she won't share with him, and he had spent his youth planning to go into the priesthood, that safe haven for secrets. So he loses her, or he abandons her -- the narrative is never quite clear. Years later, though, she turns up in Sugarmilk Falls, the newly hired town schoolteacher. She falls in love with a local trapper, Zack Guillem, who accepts her for who she is, and Souris is eaten up with jealousy. And then one day she is found dead, and the trapper vanishes.

Supposedly, nobody knows what really happened. But of course, everyone in town, listening in on the party phone lines, knows a little bit, and a handful of people know a lot. Van Mil gradually hones in on a few key players -- Souris, Grochowska, Guillem and Grand'mère Osweken, an Ojibwa medicine woman -- whose lives crisscross in threads of love, jealousy, land arguments, money and gambling. It's these people who hide at the heart of this novel, and beneath van Mil's long list of old-fashioned characters and lyrical evocations of the harsh land, they ground the story in genuine human desire.

After a slow and rather boring start the novel gets going a little, evolving slowly into a intruiging tale about greed, love, desire and revenge. And then it comes to a rather abrupt ending.. Not by far as good as it could have been!
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