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The Voyageur by Paul Carlucci: Vivid tale of body experiments in 19th-century Canada

Physical reality all too often masked by history is dragged out in gory details not for the squeamish in this debut novel

The Voyageur
Author: Paul Carlucci
ISBN-13: 978-1800753150
Publisher: Swift Press
Guideline Price: £16.99

Early in The Voyageur, Paul Carlucci’s tremendously vivid debut novel, the young protagonist Alex wakens to find a deer gazing into his eyes. It is the spring of 1831, and Alex is lost in the back country on the northern shores of Lake Huron. He is entirely alone because his older lover, Serge, has just been beaten to death: but perhaps the appearance of this gentle deer signals that Alex’s luck has turned.

Not so: the deer “snorted and looked at him with soft eyes and he at it, and then part of its head exploded and Alex heard the blast of a musket” – and the reader is reminded that there is no room for sentiment in this harsh story of colonial Canada, in which death is shockingly commonplace.

Canada’s great north has long lent itself to writing: from Susanna Moodie’s clear-eyed Victorian memoirs chronicling the gruelling nature of a settler life in the forest to Margaret Atwood’s disturbing evocation in her early novel Surfacing (1972) of a landscape essentially beyond understanding and reckoning, the north has been interpreted as pivotal in both forging and disturbing an ambivalent national identity.

Carlucci takes this idea and necessarily complicates it: Alex is Québécois, the border between British Canada and the new United States is both threatening and highly porous, and the indigenous inhabitants of Canada possess agency and power. The Voyageur adds further to its own authenticity by specifically taking its cues from history: the “voyageurs” were French-Canadian traders who travelled throughout North America; and the figure of Alex himself derives from the troubling case of Alexis St Martin, whose (living) body was used in medical experiments by the American physician William Beaumont.


Physicality, indeed, is the dominant – almost overwhelming – note in this novel. The detailing of the experiments carried out on Alex’s body are not for the squeamish; neither are the descriptions of the dark fogs of blackflies that emerge to settle on the faces and lips of the living and the dead alike; nor the all-too-vivid pictures of what a bullet, or a booted foot, can do in terms of damage to a body. But this is, perhaps, the point: history can too frequently shy away from its own physical reality and consequences. Better, always, to know.

Neil Hegarty

Neil Hegarty, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a novelist and biographer