‘The Light That Remains’ by Lyse Champagne

Book Reviews

The Light That RemainsReviewed by Amy Attas

A labyrinth, as I understand it, is a maze where every path leads to the prize; there are no dead ends. Walking a labyrinth is said to be illuminating, as the combination of forward movement and a simple route drops the participant into meditation. Place Canada, with all its faults, at the centre. Each path is a story that explains who we are. In high-school history, I walked the path of the Iroquois and Huron, the English and the French. But Canada is more than that. It is the Armenians in Montreal who were deported by the Ottomans during the First World War. It is the Ukrainians in Manitoba who were systematically starved out of the Soviet Union. The Chinese in Vancouver who escaped the Japanese army in World War II. Lyse Champagne’s collection of stories, The Light That Remains, is a diary of modern Canada, a labyrinth that guides readers to a deeper understanding of this country. As in walking a labyrinth, the reader can relax, trusting Champagne’s deft writing to guide us towards what it might mean to be Canadian.

Very little of this book actually takes place in Canada. It’s significant, though, that every story drops Canada as the end goal, the place where a cousin lives, or the land of racist bigots. Representation matters, and seeing my country in print still gives my brain a jolt. Many Western countries take in refugees, but in naming Canada, Canadian readers are forced to consider co-workers, friends, restaurant owners and physicians, and the lines from their lives that draw back to the Khmer Rouge, the Rwandan genocide, the Holocaust. Take this passage, spoken by a Cambodian-Canadian in the story “Breathing”:

Solid. That was my first impression of Canada.

Houses built of brick and stone. Sidewalks. Paved streets.

Even the clothes people were wearing seemed sturdy: parkas and long woolen coats, knitted hats and fur-rimmed hoods, thick boots that looked like they could walk on the moon.

Many writers could describe Phnom Penh’s flimsy sprawl, a city still confused after the Khmer Rouge tossed it in a blender, but Champagne’s insight goes further, to see her own home through the eyes of a newcomer. In the story “Mal’achim,when a young Jewish girl yearns for the noise and rotten smells of Paris while hiding in the French Alps, it’s easy to think about Syrians transported to the supposed beauty of rural Canada, yearning for the noise of an Aleppo train station to blot out the silence, the emptiness.

Lyse Champagne is white, and she hasn’t experienced any of this trauma firsthand. On her website she admits that for decades she refused to write these stories because she believed they weren’t hers to tell, but the stories kept coming to her, so eventually she wrote one down – not to publish, but to get it out of her head. It’s our luck that wasn’t the end of it. Her research is exemplary – the companion website offers a bounty of articles, photos and songs for each story – and the facts feed the narratives without weighing them down like encyclopedia entries. Every story has a strong, distinct voice, and a setting dressed with food and crafts to ground it. “Maps of Europe,” a tale of two sisters in Armenia, is as immersive as Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns; the view of Ukraine through an embroiderer’s hands in “The View From The Bluff” as enlightening as Joseph Boyden’s view of the Huron through a medicine woman’s apprentice in The Orenda. Most of the stories are populated with too many characters to keep straight, but just their names, piled high, thick with the language of the region, help give a sense of place. So often refugees appear in the news as a faceless crowd, by the boatload; Champagne gives them names, makes them matter.

These stories are not merely pedagogic, though. Each one slips on like a shirt fresh from the dryer, and each is rewarding just for its narrative. There is depth, if you want it, in the discerning use of rhetorical devices, but at their base these are love stories and family dramas. Champagne also gives many of her characters a love of words – candy to any reader of books. Characters who move “to a quiet corner to savour [a sister’s] letters,” who pause over an uncle’s description of Siberia as godforsaken – “a word…both sacred and bleak,” who take notes on new vocabulary because “words are the twigs, bits of grass and bark and leaf we need to build a nest for what we mean, for what we feel.”

Champagne’s writing is consistently pristine – it’s amazing that this is only her second book (the first was a memoir about growing up French in Ontario). She describes one character’s eyes as reminiscent “not only of the stones at the bottom of our creek but the water running over them, shot through with light,” which performs triple duty showing what the eyes look like, what the creek looks like and how each makes the narrator feel. In another story, Champagne demonstrates great restraint when an orphaned child describes her family’s ransacked apartment without emotion, then says, “I followed [my neighbour] up to the fifth floor, where she had been hiding me for two days, holding on to the handrail, as the steps melted under my feet.”

The Light That Remains is a round-the-world ticket to some of the twentieth century’s worst atrocities; reading is like landing in a foreign country and spending the first day at a museum, absorbing the local history. We don’t need to travel to learn history – the information is available anywhere – yet our attention is only hooked once we’re there. In the same way, The Light That Remains transports us, Champagne as our curator, giving us a fine balance of history and humanity as we turn the pages. For some stories I knew nothing and was battered alongside the characters as history fell upon them. For others I knew the official narrative, and then held my breath as I waited for the characters to be hit by it. But despite the weight of the subject matter, somehow it doesn’t feel bleak. Perhaps because the stories start before disaster strikes – before TV cameras turn their gaze – so the characters are human instead of anonymous bodies on the beach. Perhaps because I see these characters as the world-weary souls who made it to Canada, who add so much to our daily life and national conversation.

The cover of The Light That Remains shows an empty boat on a vast sea. So many people, throughout the centuries, have boarded that boat, though the voyage is unsafe, the destination uncertain. What does it feel like to be surrounded by water, every morsel of your past obliterated (except in memory), everything to come so foreign it can’t be imagined? What does it feel like to have nothing but a seat on a boat? The Light That Remains takes us there.

Enfield & Wizenty | 240 pages | $19.95 | paper | ISBN 978-1-92785-540-9

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Amy Attas

Amy Attas is a graduate of York University's Creative Writing program. Her stories have appeared in anthologies by Summit Studios and Cumulus Press, and her reviews in The Rover. She grew up in Pinawa, Manitoba, and now lives on the road, sometimes planting trees.