Michel Basilières’s Gothically charged debut novel, Black Bird, unfolds in Montreal during the October Crisis of 1970. Its scaffolding is the terrorist struggle for an independent Quebec, but this should not deceive readers into expecting a political novel. The book is, instead, built around the spectacular unravelling—and the unlikely survival—of the Desouche family. We meet the unsavoury paterfamilias, known only as Grandfather, on a cold night, high atop Montreal’s famous mountain. He is throwing in the towel for the night—or, more accurately, the trowel—because the ground is too frozen even for a grave robber.
Grave robbing is how the Desouche family lives, supplying corpses to the city’s most prominent doctor, Cameron Hyde, a figure clearly inspired by the notorious Montreal psychiatrist Ewen Cameron. But Basilières has added an element of Dr. Caligari to his mad scientist. In the gloomy confines of Ravenscrag, his laboratory, Dr. Hyde “had a jar in which the hand of a hanged murderer still crawled up the side; he had a pair of lungs that had breathed by themselves for three days; he had a small brain that he suspected was still busy thinking.”
The details of his occupation don't faze Grandfather, only the unyielding toughness of the ground that night. Defeated, Grandfather and Uncle, his son and spineless accomplice, pack up their picks and head for their house at the foot of the mountain. The place reeks of disrepair, with dull, peeling wallpaper and drafty halls. It is here that we meet the five other unhappy souls who make up the Desouche household.
Sound stark? Rest assured, it’s anything but. Black Bird can be as funny as it is unsettling. There is an old-fashioned sensibility in Basilières’s dark humour, genuine intelligence rather than cleverness. Deceptively offhand remarks—“This was one good corpse”—are interwoven with shrewd satirical observation of the habits of Quebec’s ruling class, such as the separatist premier anxious to send his children to private English school in Toronto. With its intermingling of a flamboyantly imagined Montreal with a touching, eccentric family, there is no other Canadian novel quite like it.