Anne Cimon’s new novella, A Room on the Mountain, (Gemma Books, Greenfield Park, Québec), is a story of grief, following the loss of a beloved spouse. It is told by Caroline Sauvé, a fifty-year-old journalist, waiting for heart surgery in a hospital located in the Côte-des-Neiges neighbourhood of Montreal. She has just lost her husband, Thomas, to lung cancer.
All through the book, there are vibrant references to local landmarks and restaurants. The presence of time-honoured Saint Joseph’s Oratory, for example, spreads like a spirit; towers over the city; and heals spasms of pain and sorrow, very much like the passage of time. The O’Dore Bar-B-Q restaurant is comforting, simply as a familiar place to visit following any and every event. Caroline likes “the fleet of bright orange cars” that criss-cross the city to deliver barbeque chicken. The restaurant symbolizes stability through its routine fare and its generational existence. Her parents had ordered “the chicken and fries special” when she was a child, and now the chain had expanded its menu to include “healthy salads, and a choice of rice, or baked potato.”
There is reference to the endless dilemma over whether to take the construction-ridden Champlain Bridge to the South Shore, or to risk the heart-sinking drive over Victoria Bridge: “Caroline knew people who, like her sister, chose to face bumper to bumper traffic rather than use the Victoria, a century old iron bridge…. Caroline would never forget the time when she’d been in her mother’s car, as a child, and a tire had blown in the middle of the bridge. When her mother had stepped out to take a look, her high heels had gotten caught in the grids… It had been a hair-raising moment.”
Caroline’s grief is overwhelming. She looks for a way out by moving from the apartment that she shared with Thomas to one around Queen Mary Road. She can now see “the shiny dome of Saint-Joseph’s Oratory at the top of the mountain” – a view far more “uplifting” than the earlier one of the Côte-des-Neiges cemetery where Thomas lies buried. She thinks she might be able to overcome her loneliness by finding someone to love again; and is quite attracted to her heart surgeon, the forty-two-year-old, Ken Pine, unpredictable in nature: loving, kind, and obnoxious, all within the period of a few minutes. Caroline does not know what to make of him. She is elated whenever he is concerned for her follow-up appointments, or when he wraps his arms around her waist, and holds her “tightly against him.” Then, all of a sudden, he reminds her curtly that he is a very busy surgeon, and has already given her a lot of his very valuable time. He forcefully grips her elbow, and hurries her “down the hall to his secretary’s office.”
The story is beautiful in its simplicity, and carries the interest of the reader, creating empathetic linkages with Caroline’s emotions. There is poignant imagery: the memories of Thomas “sitting up in bed, at work in his sketchbook,” as he labours for breath; the startling sketch of “his thin hand;” and finally, the memories of his love that have the power to heal, to protect, and to survive. Caroline eventually finds a place of her own within herself, close to the mountain that lends its character to the city of Montreal. She finds the strength to continue, and expresses this through words that start “tumbling out for a new article.”
There are a few loose ends that leave the reader perplexed. For example, the identity of the stranger who repeatedly tries to open the door to Caroline’s new apartment is never determined. Is he someone who, like her, is trying to relieve his grief by going back to where he once lived, or is he just a robber trying to break in? Also, Dr. Ken Pine’s lonely sit-ins at the restaurant and his solitary walks are mysteriously left unexplored. His girlfriend’s absence from the story is quite noticeable. The reader is left waiting for more about the characters that are briefly introduced. On the whole, however, A Room on the Mountain is an emotional tribute to love and loss; it works well; and provides a good read.