Wed. May 25th, 2022

The unexpected drama of modest lives remains a persistent if unlikely lure for readers. From James Hilton’s 1934 weepie Goodbye, Mr Chips to Robert Seethaler’s recent bestseller A Whole Life, the message is clear: the meek shall inherit the earth. In Not Everybody Lives the Same Waywhich won the 2019 Prix Goncourt in France, Jean-Paul Dubois continues the tradition, while adding his own dark humor, to create a touching tale of a beleaguered dreamer.

Dubois’ novel begins with a mystery. It is 2008 and Paul Hansen, the affable middle-aged superintendent of the Excelsior, a sprawling Montreal apartment block, has been jailed for a crime that is not explained to the reader. His days are spent bantering with Patrick, his Hells Angel cellmate, while at night he is visited by the ghosts of his father, wife and dog. Paul narrates his story, flitting between the incarcerated present – with its rats, bad food and gnawing cold – and his transatlantic past.

Paul grew up in Toulouse during the 1960s, the product of a doomed marriage between Johanes, a Danish pastor, and Anna, the glamorous owner of an avant-garde cinema. The complications of assimilation, national and familial, provide some delicious observations: Paul notes that his father would never be a true Frenchman, someone convinced “that the rest of the world is a distant suburb lacking in refinement”. When Anna screens the notorious porn film Deep ThroatJohanes files for divorce.

Having shadowed Johanes to Canada, where he has taken on a new parish, Paul finds his own haven in the Excelsior, “a great ocean liner of a building”. Over the following two decades, Paul marries an Algonquin woman, adopts a puppy and steadily tends to the needs of the building’s aging residents.

As befitting an author who claims he reserves all his writing for the month of March, Dubois’ tone is often whimsical (his 2004 novel A French Life was seen as a Gallic take on Forrest Gump). That lightness is here balanced by glints of harsh realism, a combination captured perfectly in David Homel’s translation, though one slight frustration is an occasionally confused chronology.

Johanes and Paul discover unexpected allies in unusual locations. Arriving at his Canadian church, Johanes finds a loyal supporter in “Four-Hands Gérard”, an organist who plays the Hammond B3 with “arachnid fingers”. Later, in custody, Paul bonds with Patrick, a biker with anger issues but prudish sensitivities. Gradually, cutting between periods, Dubois refines his theory on companionship, while ramping up the tease about how Paul lost his loved ones and what offense put him behind bars.

To call this a book about crime would be like describing The Remains of the Day as a novel about domestic work. Dubois is interested in the dynamics of long-term relationships forged between people, places and professions – their tensions, cracks and consolations. For Paul, it is worth the constant ebb and flow for “those few moments of grace we experience in the course of a lifetime”.

Not Everybody Lives the Same Way by Jean-Paul Dubois, MacLehose Press £ 14.99, 256 pages

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