The thematic thrust of Montreal writer and translator Anita Anand’s debut novel is contained in the apparent contradiction that animates her title. Solitude, by its very nature, is typically single; the notion of convergence would seem to negate the condition. When Hugh MacLennan published his canonical novel Two Solitudes in 1945, he conceived of French and English Canada as essentially irreconcilable concepts; the official policy of multiculturalism instituted in 1971 by the government of Pierre Elliott Trudeau has had the paradoxical effect of creating a multitude of solitudes within the Canadian nation, a reality that has exacerbated the tensions MacLelland explored in his novel.
National identity, and its kock-on effect on individual identity, is at the heart of Anand’s new book. Like MacLennan, Anand sets her story in Quebec (with side journeys to India during the years leading up to and just following partition) and addresses the fractious relationship between the province’s anglo community and its separatist francophone faction. This latter group is personified in Serge Giglio, the lead singer for the folk-rock band Sensibilité. Serge is a defiant Quebec nationalist who refuses his bandmates’ pleas to sign a lucrative contract with a major label because it would require the group to write songs in English.
When the 1980 referendum on Quebec separation from Canada fails, Serge is crushed and dumbfounded: “I can’t accept it. We could have had a country. All they had to do was check a box. All they had to do was check ‘Oui.’ ” When the second referendum, in 1995, similarly fails by a razor-thin margin, Serge is drunk and misses the vote altogether. Anand highlights one difference in the intervening fifteen years since the first referendum went down to defeat: “Premier Parizeau on the stage, possibly drunk, ending the night on a sour note, blaming the defeat on ‘money and the ethnic vote.’ The camera panned the crowd, landed on the faces of two young Black people, who blinked in surprise and then looked around themselves anxiously.”
Then-premier Jacques Parizeau’s infamous comment following the referendum defeat in 1995 underscores the systemic racism that has historically troubled Quebec society; it also serves as an ironic comment on the perils facing Anand’s diverse cast of characters. These include Serge’s wife, Jane, an English expat from London; their daughter, Mélanie, a Vietnamese girl who was airlifted out of her home country as a baby during Operation Babylift in the waning days of the Vietnam War; Sunil and Hima, who fled India during the sectarian violence at the time of partition between India and Pakistan; their daughter Rani, a young girl isolated in school by the colour of her skin, who ends up marrying an Irishman named Rob and becoming a guidance counsellor.
Each of Anand’s characters is struggling in some way to carve out a home for themselves – a place both physical and psychic that feels comfortable and real. It is noteworthy that most of these characters derive from places that have felt the pain of religious or racially motivated violence: in addition to Quebec (Anand doesn’t explicitly focus on the FLQ, though the organization’s terrorist tactics hover in the background of the province’s politics), there is the animus between Hindus and Muslims in India during the immediate postwar period; the Irish troubles; and, of course, the disastrous American military adventure in Southeast Asia.
These result in several levels of displacement for Anand’s cast, most especially for Mélanie, who grows up believing Jane and Serge “stole” her from her home and wants more than anything to track down her birth mother as a way of attaining a kind of psychic stability for herself. Hima plots to send Rani back to India to live with her extended family because she is fearful of her daughter coming of age in a sexually permissive society where she might ultimately marry a gora (a white person). Rani herself embarks on a solo backpacking trip to Europe; while in Amsterdam, she is sexually assaulted by a stranger she meets en route before encountering her future husband on a train.
The novel’s structure is layered and somewhat complex. After a prologue in the narrative present, the Quebec sections proceed chronologically from 1975 through 1996; these are interspersed with flashback chapters set in India during the 1940s, ’50s, and ’70s that detail Hima’s backstory and her relationship with Sunil. Each of the various characters faces abandonment and uncertainty and the trajectory of the novel as a whole involves the convergence of these characters and their individual stories as hinted at in the title.
A Convergence of Solitudes is also the name of a double album by Sensibilité, which Rani listens to incessantly during her childhood. Anand further breaks her novel down into two “discs,” each with two “faces,” making the book itself resemble a double album of interconnected material, with the individual chapters resembling discrete tracks of music. This melodic presentation is appropriate for a polyphonic novel that flits in and out of the consciousnesses of a central cast of characters, all of whom are united in a common search for belonging and meaning.