a review by David Warriner
Picture the scene: It’s a balmy Indian summer night in small town Massachusetts. Two teenagers in love are sitting on a railway bridge high above the river, feet dangling over the edge, talking about everything and nothing and stealing kisses, until he walks her home and says goodnight. It’s an innocent enough – and somewhat clichéd – scenario that ends on a note of foreboding: She had no reason to suspect they had just spent their last night together. Little does the girl know, but as she’s getting ready for bed, her boyfriend, walking home along the river, is being swept up in a tragic accident. A car plunges off a bridge into the murky depths of the Concord River – reminiscent of the 1969 Chappaquiddick incident involving Ted Kennedy and a female passenger. A woman’s screams pierce the silence of the night. The boy abandons his backpack and jacket on the riverbank and is never seen or heard from again.
This is the prologue to Martin Michaud’s new thriller, Sous la surface, a clever page-turner that weaves the tragic tale of two young lovers into a web of intrigue that threatens to derail the race for the U.S. presidency. At first glance, you might be tempted to dismiss this novel as just another political thriller, but once you dive in, you soon discover hidden depths beneath the surface.
Flash forward twenty-five years to the present day. Leah Hammett, a successful novelist suffering from writer’s block, is working as a speechwriter for the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination. Leah struggles to overcome her fear of flying as she jets from one corner of the country to the other with the campaign team and a throng of journalists. It’s the eve of Super Tuesday and the stakes have never been higher when the campaign trail leads Leah back to the hometown she turned her back on years ago. So the last thing she needs is a text message out of the blue that brings her past back to the surface with a vengeance. In Leah’s words: “Time passes and, as our illusions crumble around us, it transpires we all have something to hide.”
Leah is a complex character. Deeply uncomfortable with mingling and small talk, she musters up confidence, puts on her public face and does what she has to do. But as soon as the façade drops, her alter ego emerges and cool, calm Leah gives way to opinionated, introspective Lee, who would rather hide behind a keyboard than stand on stage smiling and waving. Writing in the first person through the eyes of his female protagonist is a real departure for Michaud, whose previous three police procedurals featured Montreal detective Victor Lessard. But he makes it look easy in Sous la Surface, which will have readers hooked in a matter of sentences.
Sous la surface stands out in the Quebec literary landscape because it isn’t set in the province. In fact, the only real connection is a note that Leah spent a part of her childhood in Montreal. But that’s not the only reason it stands out: Michaud doesn’t mince words. He writes in impeccable Quebec French, but his storyline and style are fit for the world stage. Sous la surface is an articulately written thriller that transcends the genre: it stands to appeal as much to bestseller book club readers as it will whet the appetite of Nordic noir fans. Be prepared to stay up all night reading. ≈
From Sous la surface
by Martin Michaud
≈ translated by David Warriner
I never open my eyes underwater. I am afraid of the forces that whirl beneath the surface, of the dark shapes that sway in the shadows; afraid of encountering a putrefied face, or that death might seize me by the ankle and suspend me in the silty depths until the last molecule of oxygen has left my lungs. This is a rule I also abide by at the pool, because you can never be certain what is lurking down below.
The women’s locker room was deserted on this fourteenth day of December, 1999. There was a smell of chlorine floating on the air. It cost an arm and a leg to be a member of a private club in the heart of Manhattan, but I loved the tranquillity that flowed through this place early on a weekday.
For several months now, every time I came to swim, every move I made was strictly in line with a pre-programmed routine: Place my bag on the worn wooden bench in front of my locker; undress and hang my clothes from the hooks in the metal wardrobe; slide my toes into the V of my sandals.
Next, to the sound of my heels clicking against the rubber, I would saunter over to the bathroom stall buck naked, taking no precautions to cover myself up. What would be the point? I never ran into anyone at that time and, no doubt because of my earlier career, nudity was not something that intimidated me.
When I was done urinating, I would head over to the mirror hanging on the tiled wall. With a practised flick, I would pull my blond locks into a high bun using the elastic around my wrist. Searching for signs of a first wrinkle, I would run my fingertips over the skin of my lower eyelids, below my green eyes.
This time three years ago already I had given up doing fashion shows. Although a few weeks later, the new millennium would propel me into my thirties, my body had not changed one iota in the last decade.
Swimsuit on, the final step in my ritual consisted of checking the contents of my bag — an envelope, my purse, and a few toiletries — placing it on the top shelf and closing the metal door. After taking a towel from the pile on the counter, I would push open the door leading to the pool.
Water glistening like a mirror under the flickering of the fluorescent lights, the sound of my breathing would be amplified by the chilling silence. I would take a deep breath in before I dove, my eyelids closed as I hit the water.
When I returned to the locker room, the envelope would have disappeared. This wasn’t the first time this charade had taken place, and it wouldn’t be the last. You cannot simply be a witness to your own existence. Sometimes, years later, your actions can end up taking you right back to where it all began. And when you’ve lost everything, even the name of the man you once loved can have a strange ring to it.
Life is no fairy tale, but let me tell you all the same…
Lowell, Massachusetts, October 20, 1991
“Kiss me again…”
She batted her eyelashes, nostrils flaring. Lying on her back on the slats of the railroad bridge, her head rested on the thighs of the young man running his fingers through her hair. Legs hanging over the edge, he lowered his face toward her, lips searching for hers in the darkness. It was a beautiful fall evening. Inky clouds masked the moon, but the shadows seemed to glow red.
Almost at the point of contact, she raised her palm to her boyfriend’s cheek and pushed him away in a burst of laughter.
“No, get rid of that first. It’s disgusting and it stinks!”
He drew one last drag from the cigarette he held between his fingers, then with a flick, sent it flying over the five-metre drop. Making contact with the water below, the incandescent butt let out one last sigh before disappearing into the river.
The boy started to tickle this girl he loved, teasing a long breath out right in her face.
“What’s that, Ratface? You say I stink?”
She twisted in his arms, shrieking like a banshee in her UMass hoodie.
“Stop! Stop it! I hate being tickled!”
After wriggling free, she landed a punch on his shoulder. The young man stopped and, with a more serious expression, he took her face softly in his hands.
“Calm down, I’m sorry, babe.”
He held her close, and she slipped her arms around his neck. Their lips interlocked in a long, slow kiss. They sat in the exact spot where they had met every night since they’d started seeing each other, four months earlier.
“I love you,” she murmured softly.
“And I love you more.”
The young woman shivered, trembling as much from cold as she was from emotion. Sitting up straight, he took off the checkered jacket he wore over his Guns N’ Roses t-shirt and covered her shoulders. Their bodies huddled together again, mouths connecting with urgency.
The wind, rustling through the leaves that had not yet succumbed to the grip of fall, ushered away the clouds. Intertwined, the couple now looked out at the moon reflected in the river below. Although it was close to one in the morning, a few windows in the houses on Billerica Street were still aglow. The young man hadn’t been able to resist the temptation to light another cigarette. His free arm curled around the young woman’s waist as she sat against him on their perch atop Six Arch Bridge.
“What are you thinking about?”
The question made him smile. She wouldn’t be happy with a vague answer, so he tried to be explicit about what he had in mind.
“I thought I might stop by the recruitment office this week.”
“You’re still thinking about quitting the National Guard to enlist in the Marines?”
He exhaled a mouthful of smoke.
“Yeah, I’m still thinking about it.”
She sat up and turned to face him.
“What about school?”
“We’ve already talked about that. I could take a break.”
The young woman tried her hardest to keep her cool.
“What for? The Gulf War’s over.”
“Exactly. My unit didn’t get dispatched, and there’ll be military operations all over the world in years to come. Being in the Marines will be the best way to make sure I get a part of the action on the ground.”
“It’s also the best way to get yourself killed.”
The young man smiled in the twilight and puffed out a chest that was already robust for his twenty-one years. Strands of hair cascaded messily from under his Boston Red Sox cap. It’s easy to feel immortal when you have your whole life in front of you.
“Oh yeah? Why’s that?”
He drew her face in toward his.
“Because if I die, I wouldn’t be able to see you anymore. And that, I just couldn’t handle.”
They kissed, then the young man spoke again:
“And you, what are you planning to do?”
“Me? If you join the Marines?” she replied like a damsel in distress. “Well, I guess I’ll stay here and wait for you in some scuzzy low-rise house on a military base somewhere and raise our flock of kids. And at night, while my man is off gallivanting all over the world, I’ll get drunk with all the other officers’ wives, and we’ll sit around crying, watching Ghost…”
They burst out laughing in unison, and she pointed to the young man’s backpack that lay next to them on top of the bridge.
“Do you have the card with you?”
He stroked her cheek softly.
“Yeah, wait a second…”
He grabbed his bag, dug around inside for a few seconds, and pulled out a card. Then, with a short flick of his wrist and thumb, he lit his Zippo.
In the light of the flame, they reflected over a postcard of Paris.
“One day, we’ll go to the Place des Vosges together, right?”
“That’s for sure, Ratface.”
A white streak tore across the sky, tracing a bright, circular path that vanished as fast as it had appeared.
“A shooting star! Quick, make a wish.”
He closed his eyelids for a moment, then reopened them. She seemed to sparkle as she said:
“I know if you want a wish to come true you’re not supposed to tell anyone…”
The young woman paused for a moment before she continued:
“Whatever. No matter what happens, my wish is for us to meet here again, on the bridge, in ten…”
The young man was about to respond, but she beat him to it:
“No, let’s say twenty-five years from now.”
He lifted his hand to his chest and made like he was having a heart attack.
“Twenty-five years! We’ll probably be dead by then!” She rolled her eyes skyward.
“Come on, you dumbass! Stop messing around and promise me.”
The young man raised his hand in the air and said in a solemn voice:
He took the postcard, tore it in half and held one of the pieces out to her. The young women threw him a horrified look and squealed:
“Hey! What are you doing?”
“This way, we each have to bring our half of Paris to our rendez‑vous. What do you say, Ratface? High five?”
She slapped the palm he held out for her.
The young woman had been resting her cheek on the young man’s chest. In the doorway of the house she lived in with her mother, bathed in the halo cast by a streetlamp, they held each other without a word. Every evening, the time to say goodbye for the night had become an increasingly painful ritual. In a few seconds, he was going to leave and head home to sleep, but she held on to him a little longer to stretch out the parenthesis, to get high on his scent.
After a long moment, knowing she had to let him go, she gave him back his jacket, then raised her head to look at him. He was already pulling his headphones over his Red Sox cap and plugging them into his yellow Walkman.
“What are you listening to?”
“A band called Nirvana.”
“Never heard of them. Any good?”
“Awesome! You gotta see the video. Man, that singer’s something else.”
Coming up onto her toes, she placed one last kiss on her lover’s lips.
“See you tomorrow?”
The young man put on a nasal voice, in imitation of Arsenio Hall:
“Of course we’ll see each other tomorrow.”
She roared with laughter.
“I love you, you goof. Good night…”
He became serious again, cupped her face in his hands and looked into her eyes.
“I love you too.”
Walking off down the street, he turned to her one last time. Bringing a hand to his lips, he blew her a kiss and gave her a smile.
“Good night, Ratface.”
To get home, the young man followed the flow of the Concord River along the strip of wasteland across from Billerica Street. Ears filled with Smells Like Teen Spirit, he made headway along the trail that wound its way through the trees. Hands in pockets, he couldn’t help thinking about her. His heart swelled with light, a broad smile spreading across his face. With Cobain hammering at his eardrums, he started to sing out loud.
He had just passed Six Arch Bridge when the Nirvana singer’s wailing was drowned out by a god-almighty crashing sound and a flash of yellow light burst through the branches before disappearing. He looked up, took off his headphones and looked toward the river. It was a few seconds before his brain registered and made sense of the scene. A car had smashed through the railing of the Lawrence Street bridge and was sinking into the depths of the Concord River.
Screams pierced the silence of the night. A woman’s voice, a blood-curdling cry for help. With narrowed eyes, the young man thought he recognized a face through the rear window.
After a moment’s hesitation, he started to run toward the riverbank. Abandoning his backpack and jacket on the side of the river, he was about to dive in when he saw two silhouettes emerge from the water, steam rising from their bodies.
There is always a last time. The moment before you’ll never see the one you love again. The day when life — sometimes death — decides to send you your separate ways forever.
Less than a kilometre away from where the drama was unfolding, the young woman was getting ready for bed. She thought only of her boyfriend, feverish at the idea of having to wait a few long hours before she saw him again. She had no reason to suspect they had just spent their last night together. ≈