Celine: A novel
“Celine is the portrait of a remarkable woman: a plausible super-granny with endearing panache who helps heal broken hearts and wounded souls.”
Sleuths abound in literature, but none quite like Celine—an elderly, emphysematic artist and founding-family aristocrat who takes on cold cases to “reunite broken birth families.” Celine does this not only out of the goodness of her heart, but also to fill a hole in her own heart from having given up a child she cannot find.
Notorious for her eccentricity, Celine cares not a hoot what others think of her. She dances through life according to her own morals, gathering wisdom through extraordinary experience. This enables her to bring diverse avenues of thought to her cases. As well, her not needing money lets her take all the time needed to solve a case, resulting in a success rate better than the FBI’s.
She’s also handy with a gun, which helps in this case of a 20-years-missing father that takes her into the still-wild west of Montana, accompanied by her laconic husband, Pete. The mystery is complex and compelling, and original in its fresh combination of clichés. Much of the book is disconcerting in its combinations, which add up to a balanced whole that is jangling in its parts.
One jangle is floating viewpoints. The narrative slides back and forth between characters’ points of view in any given paragraph, then continues as if recounted by an omniscient observer. About when you’ve got it straight, an avuncular voice interrupts like a narrator telling you the story directly. The effect is like having the author walk into the room and start talking about his story while you’re absorbed in reading what he wrote.
Then, because Celine’s portrait is constructed as layers of story within story, presented by different viewpoints and voices, the tense wiggles around between past and present in a manner sometimes hard to track.
If you don’t speak French, then bits of dialogue tossed out in that language add to confusion, since they aren’t translated. Even the book’s page layout gets under the skin. Conventional layout starts each paragraph with an indent, with blank lines between sections to indicate passage of time or change of scene. This one uses a blank line between all block paragraphs, so that each break sets you up to expect a change, only to realize over and over that you’re in the same scene. A little gray triangle in the middle of a linespace is the cue for an actual time/scene shift. Until you figure this out, your attention is again disrupted.
Countering these jangles are lovely, evocative imagery and moving insight into human nature. Characters are well drawn, concisely, save for Celine, who is featured in depth because it’s her story. Here again, though, enjoyment gets interrupted. After doing a beautiful job showing, the author sticks on a line that overdoes the point by telling. For instance, after showing how Celine notices details when she enters a new setting, we’re told “She noticed these sorts of things,” after which she spends another page noticing more things just fine by herself. Here a sharp editorial pencil would have spared readers moments that bunt them out of the story.
Too bad, because otherwise the novel is a serious literary effort by an experienced writer who makes profound observations in poetic language. Readers who enjoy exploring character and can handle creative style will love Celine. Those who read for plot buoyed by character, and prefer linear narrative, will find themselves thinking, Can we get back to the story, please? or Will you get out of the way and let me enjoy the book?
Either way, Celine is the portrait of a remarkable woman: a plausible super-granny with endearing panache who helps heal broken hearts and wounded souls.