Recap (from Chapter 10 to the End)
A diptych is art pieces designed to be displayed together where the meaning of one artwork is deepened by reference to its pair. The first half of A Trick of the Light opens with Clara Morrow’s triumphant vernissage and the electric reaction to her portrait of poet Ruth Zardo as the aged Virgin Mary. This is the painting that captivates Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and over which the international press raves. In the second half of the novel, we discover A Trick of the Light is really a diptych—it is a book about more than one triumphant piece of art and more than one newly discovered artist.
In part 1 we read about the murder of a now obscure former art critic for La Presse (a Montreal daily), Lillian Dyson, whose body is discovered the morning after Clara Morrow’s big celebration. Lillian’s body is found lying in Clara’s garden in Three Pines. The investigation soon turns upon motive and evidence—everyone in Quebec art circles remembers Lillian’s barb: “He’s a natural, producing art like it’s a bodily function” but no one can remember who the “he” refers to in the infamous take-down. An Alcoholics Anonymous beginners chip is found near the body. Was Lillian killed for authoring a savage review and will the murderer be found enmeshed somewhere in the world of AA?
While Agent Lacoste and her team comb the archives of La Presse to track down the elusive review, Gamache and his second in command, Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir head to the shabby apartment of Lillian Dyson. What they find there is a stash of artwork that is a revelation to Gamache:
“Her paintings were lush and bold. Cityscapes, Montreal, made to look and feel like forest. The buildings were tall and wonky, like strong tress growing this way and that. Adjusting to nature, rather than the other way around.”
And the masterpiece in the making was not of the aged Virgin Mary but a decrepit church:
“It was unfinished. It showed a church, in bright red, almost as though it was on fire. But it wasn’t. It simply glowed. And beside it swirled roads like rivers and people like reeds. No other artist he knew was painting in this style. It was as if Lillian Dyson had invented a whole new art movement.”
Soon Gamache confirms what he already suspects, that the work of an undiscovered genius may be far more valuable to the astute collector or gallery owner. The art dealer, Denis Fortin, explains:
“‘Alive she would produce more art for the gallery to sell, and presumably for more and more money. But dead?
‘The fewer paintings the better. A bidding war would ignite and the prices…’
Fortin looked to the heavens.”
In Lillian’s apartment Gamache and Beauvoir find Lillian’s copy of Alcoholics Anonymous and her meeting list. Gamache and Beauvoir will head to the Sunday night meeting—held in the same church that was the subje ct of Lillian’s unknown masterpiece. Lillian had underlined a passage in her AA book: “The alcoholic is like a tornado, roaring his way through the lives of others. Hearts are broken. Sweet relationships are dead.” We are about to enter the tornado.
So it might seem incongruous that the scene is set up through humour. Gamache meets Bob at the door: “‘I am not actually an alcoholic,’ says Gamache.
Bob looked at him with amusement: ‘Of course you aren’t.’”
Although I haven’t noted it earlier, humour glimmers in all of Louise’s books. Employing a deadpan delivery (the same way she talks in person) she wields humour in her writing to underscore some of the most serious topics.
At the AA meeting, we meet a second set of characters who will propel the story to its final conclusion: Suzanne, Lillian’s sponsor at AA, who knows Lillian’s secrets but seems reluctant to tell; Chief Justice Thierry Pinneault, who chairs the meeting—he will struggle throughout the rest of the novel to be both loyal to his fellow AA members and to uphold the course of justice; and Brian, who has killed a young child while driving drunk. He confesses: “Do you know what finally brought me to my knees? I wish I could say it was guilt, a conscience, but it wasn’t. It was loneliness.”
All three AA members find their way to Three Pines. We learn that the 12-step recovery program includes a ninth step—asking for forgiveness—and that in the final months of her life Lillian confronted those she had hurt and attempted to make amends. “Make direct amends to such people, wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” [italics added.] But has Lillian been too rushed and too careless? Has she caused injury?
Agent Lacoste and her team return to Three Pines. They inform Gamache they’ve tracked down Lillian Dyson’s famous blurb and a few more bon mots. We are close to the solving the case now as well as seeing more of the character’s private lives unfold.
Gamache wades deeper into the murk surrounding the video of the disastrous factory shooting. How was it filmed and how did it leak to the public where it became an internet sensation? Beauvoir and Gamache confront one another: Gamache trying to make his colleague seek more help to recover and Beauvoir struggling to be completely honest to his patron, to forgive Gamache, and to reach out to Annie. Clara and Peter’s marriage takes a decisive turn, the ramifications of which will only become clear in future books.
The final section begins with an invitation for Gamache, Beauvoir and Agent Lacoste to attend a dinner party hosted by Clara. No one knows that this is where Gamache will confront the murderer. It will be very relaxed says Clara, “en famille.”
And then in a novel where English and French words have flowed interchangeably Louise as writer comments for the first time about the use of French word.
“Gamache smiled at the French phrase. It was one [his wife] Reine-Marie often used. It meant ‘come as you are”, but it meant more than that. She didn’t use it for every relaxed occasion and with every guest. It was reserved for special guests, who are considered family. It was a particular position, a compliment. An intimacy offered.”
The Eastern Townships is a part of Quebec where French and English language intermingle—someone might start a sentence in French and finish in English. Some people say they think in both languages. So when Louise calls attention to en famille and its full meaning the phrase takes on extra import.
I think it conveys to the reader that however this murder mystery ends, the bonds between the characters we have come to know so well over seven books will continue to change and deepen, but most importantly they will endure en famille in the books to follow. Gamache has been offered a permanent place in Three Pines.
Suzanne’s description of why she let go of her hatred for Lillian:
“I’d held on to that hurt, coddled it fed it grew it. Until it had all but consumed me. But finally I wanted something even more than I wanted my pain.”
The epilogue provides a searing example of almost superhuman forgiveness, when Chief Justice Pinneault explains the true nature of his bond with the skinhead Brian, but when I read the words of Suzanne in the chapter prior, the psychology of her forgiveness seems more relatable and the mechanism more universal. It also sounded familiar.
I met a couple who had gone a camping trip with their daughter. On a given day, both parents thought the other was taking care of the girl and she drowned. In the aftermath the couple stayed together but they both blamed each other bitterly until they accepted that anger and blame was completely futile. It took years. They couldn’t choose to forgive; they couldn’t will it—it had to come on its own terms. They told me this at the funeral of another child who had drowned and they hoped for the same outcome for the other grieving parents—that they could eventually surrender their mutual sorrow and feelings of guilt. Louise’s quote contains the same realism about sadness, hope and forgiveness. I suspect Louise Penny’s hope comes from hard-won personal experience.
I started my re-read with a personal anecdote about the first time I spoke with Louise and how she was so kind during our initial phone call. On that call I told her that her books have always appealed to me as love letters to Quebec and the Quebecois. I spent my summers in Quebec as a child and still have family there. I don’t get to travel to Quebec as often I would like, but I go there again and again when I reread Louise Penny. “This little village produced bodies and gourmet meals in equal measure,” says Beauvoir. And much more.
Does a Canadian read Louise Penny differently than someone else? Does a Swede read Henning Mankell differently than an international reader? Perhaps not, but you notice things and hear tone differently.
It is said that national literatures often reveals deeper themes, myths if you will. The myth of the United States is ‘The Last Frontier’ and rugged individualism, the myth of the United Kingdom is the island nation. The myth for Canada is survival in the wilderness. Canadians first came together in forts, then villages, and then cities because the wilderness beyond is so powerful and so deadly, and we are so vulnerable if we remain alone.
When Louise Penny writes of Three Pines as a refuge she is describing something very deep within the Quebecois and the Canadian imagination—not just a cozy village, but more a respite from what lies beyond it.
1. Louise Penny says Three Pines is a state of mind as much as a place. Could Three Pines and its characters exist outside of Quebec?
2. “Everyone lies. . . . Everyone hides things says Gamache.” What has he hid and how has he lied?
3. A Supreme Court Justice of Canada has recently been quoted as saying she is reading Louise Penny. What do you think she will make of Chief Justice Pinneault?
4. “I wish I could say it was guilt, a conscience, but it wasn’t. It was loneliness.” Brian says he quit drinking not because of conscience but because of loneliness. What is the connection between addiction and loneliness?
5. “People only remember bad reviews” says the artist Normand. Do you think this is true?
6. A fan wrote in to say she had named her son Armand after Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. “I feel that the Chief Inspector embodies all of the characteristics I would love to see in my son—intelligence, integrity, kindness, loyalty, compassion, and empathy, although he is not above admitting when he is wrong and is flawed in ways that make him all too human and very intriguing to follow through all of the novels.” Is there a character that you would name a child after?
7. Poetry is used far more than mere ornament in A Trick of the Light. Characters reflect on the lines of Margaret Atwood, Stevie Smith and others throughout the book. What are your favorite lines and why?