FRANCESCA MOMPLAISIR, My Mother's House, New York: Penguin Random House, 2021. ISBN: 9781984898012.
reviewed by Ron Currie
Over the last decade, an interesting and possibly unique phenomenon has occurred in Maine, where I write this. As more and more refugees arrived from Francophone countries in Africa, they expected to have to figure out a new life on the fly in a place as alien to them as Neptune, and without the benefit of anyone they could speak to in their own language. But instead, these refugees were shocked, and uniformly thrilled, to find the dwindling but still extant French-speaking population of Maine had been waiting for them unawares. Mostly elderly, mostly female, these Franco-Americans, descendants of agrarian Quebecois habitants who fled poverty and discrimination in Canada after the American Civil War, were in turn delighted by the sudden appearance of people who spoke a language that existed now mostly in their heads. Social groups sprang up where people came to speak and hear French, the language in which they felt most themselves. The pews at French Catholic Mass, long mostly empty, began to fill up again.
Consider that these two groups of people could not, superficially at least, be much more different. The refugees are black; the Franco-Americans white, at least by recent consensus (do not forget that only a few generations ago, on the floor of the U.S. Senate, Francos were called "a distinct alien race," and for a long time were treated as such). The refugees left behind violence and ethnic and political persecution; the Franco-Americans had, by comparison, lived safe and comfortable lives. If we're to believe the recently-codified cultural insistence that "identity" markers such as race represent insoluble barriers between people, there should have been no chance of bonding between these groups. But instead, a shared language revealed this insistence for the absurdity it is. Language, after all, is much more than how people communicate. It is culture, and true identity. It's a way to feel at home even when you aren't. It is a means of knowing, instantly and unmistakably, that you're in the company of someone who understands you.
This is the lens through which I read Francesca Momplaisir's debut novel, My Mother's House, a brutal, unblinking, deeply-felt story about Haitian immigrants in New York, and about one immigrant in particular: Lucien, a widower with a grim past whose house, at the book's outset, is gutted by fire. But stop right there. Because the story is being told by the house, and one of the first things we learn is that this sentient building has started the fire itself, somehow, in response to the terrible acts of sexual violence and degradation that have occurred under its roof. As the story goes on, we alternate among three perspectives: the titular house's, Lucien's, and that of Sol, a woman who has spent untold years in confinement after being kidnapped as a child.
Lucien grows up in Haiti under the care of his aunt La Belle, after his parents effectively abandon him by leaving for the United States. They send money for his education, but by the time he's a teenager Lucien has quit school and created a job for himself as a recruiter and bouncer at a brothel in Port-au-Prince. This is where his insistent, pathological sexual appetite first finds expression — but it's only later, after he's immigrated to the United States himself, that this appetite blossoms into horrid fullness.
Much of that part of the story — at least, the parts the reader can rely on as factual and unbiased — comes from the house itself, where Lucien and his wife, Marie-Ange, run a de facto community center for newly-arrived Haitians, helping them navigate the American legal system and find jobs. When it was first built, the house was part of a largely Italian neighborhood, but as more and more people of ever-darker shades arrived from the Caribbean, the Italians decamped to Long Island, which at first was to the house's liking — it didn't care for the activities of the mafia thug who owned it before Lucien, and imagined the Haitian would be a much more civilized tenant. Little did it know.
Now is probably a good moment to note that the anthropomorphizing of the house can, at times, feel belabored, more like a literary conceit and less like a mysterious but factual phenomenon. For one thing, the scope of its sentience is ill-defined and seems to shift with the needs of the story. When it's narratively expedient, the house comes across as omniscient, aware of every hole Lucien has drilled for spying on women; at other times, when it's convenient for the author's purposes, the house seems to know next to nothing of what's going on inside its walls. Even the insistence on referring to the house as capital-I "It" begins to grate after a while, implying as it does that the reader can't be trusted to remember that this is no ordinary house we're talking about.
In the aftermath of the fire, we come to understand that Lucien used his position as a community liaison and broker to coerce, and occasionally force, scores of women to have sex with him over the years. In this way he very much resembles the figure of the French-Canadian mon oncle of a few generations earlier, men who "helped" other Francos navigate a Protestant, English-speaking world, but did so for the purposes of profiting from and controlling their neighbors. Lucien's house is still standing, but barely, and he's desperate to get inside before the demolition crew takes it down. In short order, we find out why: in his ever-deepening depravity, he has turned a soundproof room in the basement into a dungeon, where he's kept four women, including Sol, prisoner to satisfy his insatiable hunger for sex, dominance, and the collecting of other people's fear. Once the situation is understood in its entirety — Lucien trying to figure a way to get the women out of the basement without being caught; the women, in turn, trying to survive the cold and lack of water and food and find a way to escape before Lucien comes back — the novel becomes very much a kind of thriller, one whose resolution ought not be spoiled in a review.
Awful as Lucien is, Momplaisir, to her credit, does not allow the reader to dismiss him as a monster. She takes great care to portray Lucien as complex and contradictory, deluded, needy, self-justifying, but not entirely incapable of love or affection. He is the sum total of a precise and unknowable admixture of nature and nurture, and the reader need not excuse his hideousness to recognize it as deeply and terribly human. Momplaisir resists the temptation to implicitly (or worse, explicitly) blame Lucien's malfunctions on colonialism, or racism, or autocracy. Are these things real, and do they exert real pressure and influence on people's lives? Of course. The legacy of Franco-Americans' mistreatment and exploitation was still quite palpable during my childhood, and the African refugees who now call Maine home have scars, both physical and emotional, that map directly onto European empire-building and its reverberations in the present. But stories are about people, not morals, and people are far too complicated to be dismissed as simply and solely a product of oppression or trauma. One cannot graph the intersections of colonialism and racism and generational abuse and find Lucien reliably standing there, as if on a street corner, for all eternity. No. He is a person, which is to say: He is a mystery, and a restless, nimble target. And in the end, Lucien has chosen to be what he is — as each one of us must.