Suffering, death, survival, history and fiction interwined

By  Rebekah Bedard, Catholic Register Special
  • October 22, 2010

The Queen of UnforgettingThe Queen of Unforgetting by Sylvia Maultash Warsh (Cormorant Books Inc., 284 pages, $21).

The Queen of Unforgetting is a masterfully written book, with an engaging protagonist and a thought-provoking exploration of the themes of suffering, death and survival. It is well worth the read.

As the child of Holocaust survivors, Sylvia Maultash Warsh grew up listening to her mother’s stories of fleeing from the Nazis in Poland and surviving the horrors of the labour camps. These stories sparked Warsh’s interest in history — an interest that has shaped her fiction. To date, she has written three well-received historical mystery novels. In her fourth novel, The Queen of Unforgetting, she departs from the mystery genre with great success.

The novel is set in 1973. Mel Montrose, a young graduate student and the daughter of Holocaust survivors, persuades legendary Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye to supervise her thesis. The thesis will focus on “Brébeuf and His Brethren,” E. J. Pratt’s epic poem about the 17th-century Jesuit Jean de Brébeuf. To help her write her thesis, Mel takes a job at Sainte-Marie among the Hurons, the reconstructed Jesuit mission near Midland, Ont. Mel’s estranged parents happen to live close by and, when a rejected suitor comes to find Mel, she is forced to reconnect with them. The reader soon discovers that, although Mel is fascinated with history, she has been running from her own past.

Warsh’s prose is witty and elegant. A seasoned mystery writer, she keeps Mel’s full story hidden until the end — though the careful reader may find hints of it early on. The novel weaves back and forth between Mel’s story and her fictional retelling of Brébeuf’s story. Frustrated with the lack of detail in the Jesuit Relations, Mel wonders “What were things like, really?” While Warsh has clearly done her research on Brébeuf, Mel’s reconstruction of his life is fanciful and highly imaginative.

The creative and secretive Mel is a complex protagonist. She is selfish and caring, ruthless and vulnerable. Through Mel, Warsh explores the power of the past to shape one’s identity. Mel attempts to forget her past and conceal her nature. But this is no easy task and, at times, she fears that her “two selves might annihilate each other.”

{sa 1897151721}Although Mel can be cruel, her dry sense of humour and her depth make her an engaging narrator.

In addition to its captivating protagonist, The Queen of Unforgetting offers thought-provoking reflections on the themes of suffering, death and survival. Mel was rescued from drowning as a child and she remains fixated on water imagery throughout the novel. The book also explores two historical events. The first is the death of Brébeuf and the destruction of the Huron nation at the hands of Iroquois warriors. Numerous characters in the novel criticize the Jesuits and point out that, in trying to save the Huron people, Brébeuf and his companions brought the disease that killed half the population. But throughout the novel there is also a deep admiration for Brébeuf’s devotion and his willingness to sacrifice himself unto death.

The Queen of Unforgetting also reflects upon the horrors of the Holocaust. These horrors have led Mel’s parents to question the nature of God. Mel’s father is left with three unpleasant options: God is a monster, God has no power or God does not exist.

Indeed, the Holocaust and the destruction of the Huron nation raise questions that resound throughout the novel. Why does God allow such suffering? Why do some die, while others survive? The novel offers no easy answers to these questions.

The Queen of Unforgetting is a moving and well-crafted book. Those with an interest in Canadian history and literature will enjoy seeing Brébeuf and Frye as fictional characters. However, with its complex protagonist and deep reflections, the novel will appeal to a broad audience. It is not to be missed.

(Bedard is a freelance writer in Toronto.)

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