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  • Written by Michel Basilieres
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  • Black Bird
  • Written by Michel Basilieres
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On Sale: July 27, 2011
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-0-307-36847-8
Published by : Vintage Canada Knopf Canadian Publishing
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In this wholly original novel alive with misfortune and magic, Michel Basilières uncovers a Montreal not seen in any other English-Canadian work: a forgotten blue-collar neighbourhood in between the two solitudes. Gothic, outrageous, yet tender and wise, Black Bird is as liberating as the dreams of its wayward characters, and as gripping as the insurgencies that split its heart.

The Desouches have inhabited the same run-down house in working-class Montreal for years, much to the dismay of their landlord, and its ramshackle architecture perfectly mirrors that of the eccentric family living inside. Grandfather is a sour old grave-robber who relishes in the anguish he causes his wife and family. Uncle shares the same occupation, and otherwise spends much of his time drunk and alone. Neither is looking forward to the winter, which means lost work, due to the frozen ground. Father doesn’t share their gruesome job, but comes up with his own schemes anyway. Mother lies down to sleep away her grief when her father dies, and does not wake up for months. A plain French woman named Aline marries into the family, having been fooled by Grandfather’s smooth ways, only to find herself alienated in a household that chooses to speak English. Marie, the granddaughter and an FLQ terrorist, could share her language — she certainly resents that a part of her is English — but is too caught up in her politics and her anger to get involved. It falls to Marie’s twin brother, Jean-Baptiste, to play occasional translator, though as always he’d prefer to be upstairs in his attic room reading literature and writing awful poetry. Throw in a judgemental pet crow, a confused ghost, a mad doctor, peculiar neighbours, maverick policemen and the walking dead, and you’ve got the makings of the ultimate domestic drama, Montreal-style.

When an FLQ bomb set by Marie kills not only the expected strangers but her anglo maternal grandfather (what was he doing out for a smoked-meat sandwich at that hour, anyway?) it sets the family off on a notably bad run of luck. Then again, not many stretches would stand out as stellar for this peculiar group. Which points to one of the wonderful truths that Basilières allows to guide his characters: that life is crummy and a struggle just as often as it’s not, but that doesn’t keep us from wanting to enjoy it in our own ways and hoping for a better tomorrow. As in life, there is a level of coincidence here that is too uncanny to not be believable. When the drunken premier runs down a man in the street, it is not only Marie’s boyfriend and fellow activist who is killed, but the crooked cops bring the fresh corpse to Grandfather’s door to be suitably dealt with. When some of Marie’s separatist pamphlets get mixed up with Jean-Baptiste’s poetry chapbooks, a prison term and a kidnapping are among the unexpected results. When Grandfather loses an eye, his vision improves. And as events spiral out of control, it seems that some of the Desouches are at their most content.

With Black Bird, Michel Basilières has written a comic noir, a disturbing and hilarious study of how the October Crisis and the question of Canadian nationalism play out through the disjointed relationships within one family. And as with all of the best fiction, here the facts of our history do not get in the way of the truth, or of telling a good story. Compared to such disparate novels as One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Corrections, and Two Solitudes, Black Bird marks the fiction debut of a masterful and thoroughly entertaining storyteller.



Montreal, an island, placed a cemetery atop its mountain, capped that mountain with a giant illuminated cross and wove streets along its slopes like a skirt spreading down to the water. In this way, its ancestors hovered over the city just as the Church did, and death was always at the centre of everything.

* * * * *

Grandfather had one foot in the grave and the other on the shoulder of his spade. He pressed his weight on it; nothing. He stood on it, lifting himself completely from the earth -- still nothing.

“No use,” he said to Uncle. “The ground’s already frozen. The season’s over.”

Grandfather eyed the lights of the city below glowing through the leafless trees ringing the cemetery. A single large flash winked at him like a bulb or a star going out; seconds later a sound like an enormous kettledrum drifted up through the cold air. The revolving beacon of a skyscraper swung overhead, and then came another flash, and another boom. There was silence after that, except for the wind in the trees. And then sirens. Grandfather watched the regular flashes of police cruisers and ambulances progressing along the lines of light that shone out of the darkness. Cops. They were never anything but trouble. At least tonight, he thought mistakenly, they were someone else’s problem.

Cold and disappointed, the two men began the long walk home. Even if they could have paid for the bus that ran over the mountain, they couldn’t board at the cemetery gate, in the middle of the night, with shovels and sacks. As Grandfather watched Uncle preceding him, he realized the snow was just as much an impediment to their work as the frozen ground: Uncle was leaving a trail of footprints, and Grandfather must have been too.

The season had definitely come to an end. What would they do now? This winter wouldn’t be as easy as the last, when Grandmother’s death turned out to be a boon to him in so many ways, large and small. Small, because it meant one less person to feed. Large, because it allowed him to indulge his hostilities, his grudges against the neighbours, and his fondness for drinking, all under the guise of his grief. But that lasted only through the summer, for as soon as Labour Day passed, the anniversary of her death, everyone began to remark that it was time to return to business as usual; the holiday was over, get a grip. In fact they might have allowed him a longer period of licence if he hadn’t made it clear, after a certain amount of beer, that he’d not really been fond of her anyway, and what a relief it was turning out to be, being a widower.

This reaction surprised no one in the immediate family, but it was only after Grandmother’s death that his true nature became obvious to the neighbourhood. She’d spent most of her life covering up for him and keeping him from them. After all, she was one of them, born and bred in the quarter, where her family was known and liked. He was the outsider, the stranger, the unknown quantity. Which caused a great deal of curiosity in the beginning, and a great deal of trouble for her.

He’d never shown any respect for her friends or relatives, for anyone on the street, for anyone who might give him a job, or even for his own children. She’d married him because he’d made an effort to impress her and convince her of his sincerity, and she’d never before been shown that sincerity was as easily discarded as an empty cigarette package. The rest of her life had been spent trying to make up to her children for so carelessly choosing their father, and overcoming her own disappointment, which he seemed to insist on reinforcing daily. He had the habit of reading aloud from the newspaper the story of some other family’s tragedy and laughing at the details; of carelessly leaving pornographic magazines around the house where the children, her friends, and she could see them; of not replying to her questions.

She should have left him early on, but that would have meant returning to her parents’ house, since she had no resources of her own. And return was impossible, because although they would have taken her in gladly and quickly, never asking why, they’d silently assume they’d been right, that she was returning in failure and despair. She could fight her husband’s cruelty and indifference, a miserable struggle that would justify her life, but she couldn’t fight her parents’ certainty that she was incapable of a life without them. And in the end, the example of her strength in the face of his power was the legacy she would leave her children.

After Grandmother had received the last rites from Father Pheley, she summoned enough strength to look her husband in the face and, heedless of the presence of so many others, gave him her last words:

“Your heart is so cold it will lead you to hell. At least I don’t have to fear meeting you again.”

Grandfather couldn’t bring himself to scowl or scoff, as he always had at any remark of his wife’s. Not because of the presence of the others, or because she was dying, but because he still harboured his childhood fear of priests. The ensuing moment of silence, as her spirit left her with a smile on her face, gave him the chance to absorb one of the great lessons of his life: even in the presence of death and the entry into heaven, disagreeable people remain disagreeable.

Because he needed a cook and a housecleaner, Grandfather remarried quickly enough to cause eyebrows to raise, especially considering the difference in years between himself and his second wife. If his children had objections, in any case they kept silent. And the neighbours’ speculations, typical in such cases, were off target. Grandfather had not been having an affair behind Grandmother’s back -- not that it was beyond him, but he’d never bothered to hide his infidelities -- nor had he lost his head, as foolish older men have been known to do. Neither had his new wife married him for his money, since he didn’t have any. But it wasn’t surprising that some might think so; although the family was never seen to spend lavishly, none of them were ever seen to have a job, either. And whenever the neighbours couldn’t understand how someone could live in complete poverty, they assumed that person must be secretly rich after all. Under the mattress, in secret bank accounts, buried in the backyard: there was no limit to the hiding places, no matter how far-fetched, suggested by those unwilling to take the evidence at face value. Once the idea was planted, all common sense was discarded in the effort to bolster their belief, because nothing is harder to let go than the suspicion that someone else is guilty of hiding something.

From the Hardcover edition.
Michel Basilieres|Author Q&A

About Michel Basilieres

Michel Basilieres - Black Bird
Michel Basilières was ten years old and growing up in Montreal during the October Crisis. He still remembers the tensions vividly — though he was busy preparing for Halloween at the time. But the events and fears that effected everyone in Montreal have stayed with him, as those defining sorts of memories that take root in childhood. Not even the holiday festivities were exempt: in 1970, the Basilières children were taken by their father to the anglophone community of Westmount to trick-or-treat, as opposed to their usual route downtown. As Michel has said in one interview, “We went trick-or-treating to houses, all of which were guarded by Canadian troops…. He showed us the people with wealth and power and influence were guarded at their very doors and very homes. That made a deep impression on me.” From then on, Michel knew that this was a story he wanted to tell, and you could say that in those early experiences was the genesis of Black Bird.

Michel Basilières has commented often on the lack of attention English Canada pays (whether in literature or memory) to the October Crisis and the issues at its heart, events that are so central to Quebec consciousness and to our national identity. “What’s hardest for people today to understand is the fear many people felt, both French and English…. When the crisis finally erupted, it became the focus of world attention. And we were invaded by the army. We were under martial law, and we knew that anyone could be arrested and detained without charge on the least pretext. And that happened. 500 artists, writers, journalists, musicians, poets and professors were rounded up and incarcerated. People don’t seem to understand when I make this point about Canada, the country I grew up in: we sent the army to arrest the intellectuals. We had always been taught this kind of thing was the brutal act of repressive dictatorships.”

For Michel, language is not only a factor in the defining of Quebec, or of Canada, but has been so in his own life. Growing up in Montreal with a French father and an anglophone mother, he has always felt somewhat separate from the two cultures — as does his character, Jean-Baptiste. Michel’s language is English, which has always added to the distance: “My name, for example, has been a constant problem, to tell you the truth. In Montreal everyone expects me to be perfectly fluent in French and they’re surprised when I’m not. In Toronto, people think my name is Michael. Or, if they’re writing to me, they think I’m a woman.”

Much of the humour of Black Bird comes from Michel’s conscious effort to have fun while writing. “I was aware of how difficult it was to be a writer because I had met so much resistance along the way. I realized that, given that the chances of publication were so slim, I might end up with only a manuscript in the drawer…. I was really just trying to amuse myself.” Throughout the writing process, he’d tell his own jokes, and when they show up on the page they add a richness to his portrayal of Montreal — and some of its odder inhabitants. Michel’s experience as a bookseller gave him a realistic view of his chances of being published, even by a small publisher, but then his hopes were surpassed: Black Bird was discovered in the slush pile at Knopf Canada, and became part of the publisher’s celebrated New Face of Fiction program. And though the attention that has been focused on Michel since publication has dramatically affected his life, sometimes in unexpected ways, he still considers the whole experience to be “a dream come true.”

Today, Michel lives in Toronto and is writing his second novel. His other writing projects include a produced stage play, independent film work and a radio drama for the CBC, as well as arts journalism. He has worked as a bookseller in both Toronto and Montreal.

Author Q&A

1) Can you tell us how you became a writer?
From the time I was a child I read and loved books. Since I’m stubborn I refused to learn any marketable skills, and by the time I was an adult couldn’t get a decent job, but I’d read more than most people do in a lifetime and had boxes full of writing. I briefly went to university and learned it wasn’t for me. Then I just kept at it. I think there’s less choice for some people than others.

2) What inspired you to write this particular book? Is there a story about the writing of this novel that begs to be told?
There weren’t any novels I could find that reflected my experience, so I set out to write one. By the time I did, I already had another one in the drawer which had gone nowhere. I realized I needed to work harder than ever before. It’s not enough to be good, or lucky, and I was far from connected. I felt I had to do something that would be impossible to ignore. During the long process I was terrified that I was wasting my time, that nothing would come of it.

3) What is it that you’re exploring in this book?
It’s essentially a portrait of the Montreal I knew, sort of from the bottom up. There’s precious little of this in Canadian literature — there’s enough agonizing, alright, but not much testimony from the urban working class. Though Montreal has been gifted with Mordecai Richler and David Fennario. Thematically, death and rebirth play a large part. There’s a lot of darkness in it because Montreal is so grey for so much of the year. Some Montrealers disagree with me, but it’s my experience, after all. On top of this, I was trying to tell myself a lot of jokes. Some of them will never be apparent to anyone else, but at the time I thought, “Okay, if this never gets published, you can still take it out of the drawer in twenty years, and it better please you when you do.”

4) Who is your favourite character in this book, and why?
This is a real toss-up. I like the women over the men, I think. The women all have an honesty in their motivations, they’re just trying to be true to themselves. Bu the men are selfish and lazy. So, Marie, Aline, Mother. I must admit I’ve got a fondness for Woland, but readers of Bulgakov can see I just stole him, so that doesn’t count.

5) Are there any tips you would give a book club to better navigate their discussion of your book?
Look for the ideas. I would say that to anyone reading anything. You can ooh and aah over surface pleasures, which is where our delight in reading comes from, but if you want to think about what was in the author’s head, you’ll have to ask the same kind of questions writers do about their own work. Why these words, and what do they mean? Why do they come at this point? What comes just before, or just after? What do they add up to?

6) Do you have a favourite story to tell about being interviewed about your book?
One thing points out the difference between reading and writing a book. An interviewer asked me to talk about the non-human character in Black Bird and I drew a blank on him. I couldn’t figure out what he was talking about and he finally had to name the crow.

7) What question are you never asked in interviews but wish you were?
Well nobody ever asks if I’m going to write about Montreal again, but I’m not sure it’s a question I want to answer. And no one ever asks my personal position on Quebec independence.

8) Has a review or profile ever changed your perspective on your work?
To a small extent they all do. It’s very difficult to understand your own work the way other people see it. So whatever someone else says is a piece of the puzzle, a view from outside. Sometimes it merely confirms something nebulous in your own thinking, sometimes it’s surprising. The bad can be as valuable as the good, though of course it can throw you off emotionally.

9) Which authors have been most influential to your own writing?
I believe there’s two different things at work in a writer’s mind: the authors he or she loves, and those that have influenced them. They’re not at all the same thing sometimes, and I think the question of influence is best answered by others. Also, there are and have been an enormous number of excellent and fascinating writers. But so as not to dodge the question, here’s a few: Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, Bulgakov, Kundera, Voltaire, Julio Cortazar, Borges, Rushdie, Angela Carter, E.T.A. Hoffman, Goethe, Diderot, Samuel R. Delany, Antonin Artaud, Barthes and Foucault. For some years my ultimate admiration has been for Italo Calvino, a great writer of enormous strength and breadth who seemed to be able to write anything better than anyone else. His work was always brief, lucid, elegant, imaginative, superbly structured and controlled, firmly anchored in both life and mind.

10) If you weren't writing, what would you want to be doing for a living? What are some of your other passions in life?
I really like food and drink. Since moving to Toronto I’ve had to learn to cook for myself, and it turns out I really enjoy baking and otherwise using the oven. Maybe I could be a baker. It’s very satisfying. Or restaurant reviewer. Imagine being paid to eat out.

11) If you could have written one book in history, what book would that be?
At the risk of sounding pretentious, having written a book myself, I feel they are so personal that you’d have to be the author to undertake the task. Borges wrote a famous short story about this: “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” Menard attempts to write Don Quixote and can only succeed by becoming Cervantes. Since we can never be someone other than ourselves, he fails; yet since the resulting book is the individual product of a separate person, he succeeds. So in the end, for better or worse, my own book.

Praise | Awards


“This macabre, sometimes fantastical, often hilarious first novel…manages to be at once ghastly, farcical and shot through with a pathos that tugs about equally at mind and heart. Black Bird is a terrific read, an epic critique of and lament for the decades of rhetoric and rancour, and blood, that have yet to lead Quebec to the mythic prize of nationhood…. Vive le satirical livre!” -- The Globe and Mail

“a stunning debut novel…wildly inventive and darkly funny…. Bravura plotting and comic talent are only the surface of Black Bird’s achievement. Basilières has the essential qualities of a first-rate satirist, in spades. He displays an abiding love for his characters, however awfully they behave, but his rage is equally inextinguishable…. His brilliant novel is an extended metaphor for the messy, intractable, essentially unbreakable web that history has made of Canada.” -- Brian Bethune, Maclean's

“At first glance, [Black Bird] looks a little like a Canadian take on Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. But where Franzen depicts the decline of the nuclear family, Basilières gives us a core meltdown. . . . Spirited, clever [and] dead on.” -- The Gazette (Montreal)

Black Bird rocks. An exuberant new Quebec voice that speaks for all of us living in the spaces in between.” -- Susan Swan

“When someone tells you that a first novel is ‘brilliant’ or ‘stunning,’ they’re usually lying and they know it. But occasionally a book comes along that’s as good as the jacket cover blurb says it is. Michel Basilières’ first novel is a work of enormous love; it’s intelligent without the pirouettes, literate without showing off. And very funny. It’s that rare thing among novels, a book you should actually read twice.” -- David Gilmour

Black Bird is a great, wonderful monster of a novel, from the history of Frère André’s black heart to the screeching of the crow, Grace, from its astounding descriptions of Montreal to its observations of the compulsions and frustrations of one Family Desouche, it ushers in a new, hilarious, wildly imaginative, powerful and heartfelt voice.” -- Edward Carey

“If ever a book defied description it is Black Bird. Covering themes as big as Canada itself and as dangerous as the battle field of family life, it is outrageous, hilarious and surreal. It is a remarkable creation, brilliantly original.” -- Mary Lawson

“The delightful, macabre nature of Michel Basilières’ novel doesn’t hide the real sweetness of a writer who so obviously loves his fellows, especially when they are at their worst. Basilières’ comic sensibility is as black and shining as a crow’s wing. I believe Lovecraft must be sitting up in his grave and grinning.” -- Gail Anderson-Dargatz

From the Hardcover edition.


NOMINEE 2004 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book
NOMINEE 2004 Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour
WINNER 2004 Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award
NOMINEE 2004 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book
NOMINEE 2004 Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour
WINNER 2004 Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Many reviewers have commented on Michel Basilières’s clear love for his characters, despite the sometimes awful things that they do. How did you feel about the less-than-honourable individuals in the Desouche family (such as Grandfather the misogynistic grave-robber, or Marie the terrorist and brother-tormentor)? In what ways do Basilières’s portrayals make it hard to pin anyone down as “good” or “bad”?

2. In what ways can Black Bird be seen as a portrait of Montreal? Consider not only mentions of the physical city itself — the mountain, the streets, the invisible divisions between French and English neighbourhoods — but how the character of the city can be seen in the Desouche family’s existence and activities.

3. The name “Desouche” is a play on the French expression “de vieille souche,” meaning authentically Québécois. In what ways could you consider the eccentric Desouche family “authentically Québécois”?

4. Throughout, Michel Basilières chooses names for his characters that are loaded with possible meanings and ties to moments in literature and Canadian history. Discuss the meanings of some of the names here, as well as the fact that some characters remain nameless (Father, Uncle, Mother).

5. Why does Aline stay with Grandfather? What solace does she find in the kitchen, and cooking? By the end of the novel, how well is she fitting in with the Desouche family?

6. Michel Basilières has been compared to writers such as Salman Rushdie, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Gunter Grass in his ability to weave fantastic elements into his otherwise “realistic” storylines. Discuss some of the more bizarre elements of Black Bird, and what they contribute to the story.

7. Discuss the issue of separatism as it is illuminated by the events of this novel. Who is for it, who against, and why? Could you say that the tensions between the English and the French are equalled by those between the haves and the have-nots?

8. Discuss the role of Grace, the crow. How does its shift in allegiance, to Aline, affect the household? Why does it follow Grandfather to the hospital? What kind of meanings can you build into its presence, or bring in from other familiar stories or writings? Why is Black Bird the title of this novel?

9. To what extent is Marie driven by her convictions, or by her love of family? Why does she kidnap John Cross and try to get her brother out of jail?

10. “Salman Rushdie says in The Satanic Verses that to be born again, first you have to die. It happens to a bunch of characters in the book, and they’re transformed.” — Michel Basilières. Discuss the role of rebirth, and the hope it brings, in Black Bird, considering both real and metaphorical deaths (e.g. Mother’s sleep).

11. As Basilières warns us in his Author’s Note, historical facts are used and twisted throughout Black Bird in ways that play on readers’ knowledge and associations — but of course, “Facts are one thing but fiction is another, and this is fiction.” Discuss how your knowledge of Quebec and Canadian history, or other literature, came into play during your reading, and the impact of Basilières’s twists and allusions.

12. Discuss the effect of Basilières’s humour on you as a reader. Were there specific parts of the book that made you laugh out loud? How does the lightness of the novel’s tone work with some of the more dark and dramatic events at hand?

13. Why does Basilières end the novel with the same words that open it? What do you think of the link suggested between Jean-Baptiste and our narrator?

14. What do you think the future holds for the Desouche family?

  • Black Bird by Michel Basilieres
  • March 09, 2004
  • Fiction
  • Vintage Canada
  • $13.95
  • 9780676975284

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