Turning Back & Moving Forward: A Review of Sun of a Distant Land

David Bouchet’s Sun of a Distant Land (translated by Claire Holden Rothman, Esplanade Books/Véhicule Press, 2017) is in many ways the perfect ‘Montreal’ book.

Originally written in French and later translated into English, the tale of the Senegalese twelve-year-old Souleye and his family’s immigration to Montreal is as multifaceted and bilingual as the Canadian city of its publishing. More than that, however, the novel is a melancholically earnest but heart-warming story of what it means to try and leave the past and your culture behind and how much of it remains, for better or for worse.

Another addition to the ever-growing library of immigration literature, Bouchet’s novel is quite large in scope. While dealing with the newly-arrived immigrant experience, Bouchet plays with the curiosity and naivety of its young narrator Souleye, to offer both light-hearted portrayals of an ever-surprising Montreal and immeasurably deep reflections on mental health, family relations, and the inevitable loss and gain that comes with making a new place one’s own. Through other notable characters, like Souleye’s eccentric but depressive father, and Charlotte, Souleye’s cross-eyed best friend from a broken home, the novel explores other facets of these  themes, offering multiple perspectives while maintaining an overarching narrative of accepting and inviting change. The novel also takes readers all over Montreal and beyond, both in the present and past, going from tiny apartments in Villeray and parks in Rosemont-la-Petite-Patrie to mango groves in Dakar in the very same sentence. It is a book that can make one feel at home in its distances, thoughtful in its sadness, and captivated in its honesty.

The only reservation I have about the book is in the translation and its effect on both the novel’s language and the content. While the prose is excellent– its simple effectiveness borders on the poetic in some scenes– the translator’s hand is almost too noticeable. Not having read the original French edition (Soleil, Éditions la Peuplade, 2015), it is difficult to tell if some of the twelve year old narrator’s more formal thoughts were the author’s choice, or something added in translation. Additionally, the novel’s deliberate poking fun at the linguistic differences of French and English sometimes misses its mark due to the translation. A line like: “Come on, Souleye. You’re not a loser,” he says, stressing all the English words”, loses its authenticity when all the words are already in English. However, it is an easy fix if we presume the characters are speaking French to one another.

Sun of a Distant Land is a book that is easy to get lost in. It is an enjoyable read that keeps you wanting more from characters that feel like they could live down the street from you, whose struggles you become akin to, while asking what it means to truly be home.

 

Book review by Alexander Luiz Cruz