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lip lit: fish change direction in cold weather

I’ve mentioned before that I love books with quirky titles, and of course Pierre Szalowski’s Fish Change Direction in Cold Weather is no exception. But what is even better than a book with a quirky title, is a book with a quirky title which actually resonates within the context of the whole story. Szalowski manages this feat on a street in suburban Quebec, where a fervent snowstorm arrives and disrupts the orderly lifestyles of the neighbours who share the street, but not their lives, with each other.

The novel begins with an eleven-year old boy, and a Christmas which turns into a holiday he’d rather forget. He decides he needs assistance, and with no one else to turn to, he asks the sky for help. And the sky listens, to his wonderment and the rest of his neighbours’ despair. Szalowski changes perspective each chapter between the different characters occupying the street, and, despite this jumping of point of view, it never feels as though we are left without the whole story of one particular character.

Russian PhD student Boris keeps very much to himself, as he’s in the depths of his PhD on the direction his fish swim when kept at a steady 32 degrees. When the snowstorm hits and he loses power, his years of hard work threaten to disappear. By chance, his neighbour Julie, who earns a steady income as a stripper, asks if Boris would like to stay at her house, which is on the other side of the street and still has power. Couple Michel and Simon, who have never been able to reveal the true nature of their living arrangements, reach out to Alexis and his son Alex, who have also lost power, in an attempt to help themselves by helping their neighbours. And then there’s the eleven-year old boy, who is friends with Alex, who sees the sky helping everyone but himself, and he can’t understand why.

This book is wonderfully written. It is understated, allowing the reader room to breathe in the atmosphere and make their own conclusions. Pierre knows exactly when to stop writing; he knows when he’s said enough and never oversteps the mark to elaborate and really drive the point home for the reader. He knows when the reader has understood, and leaves it there. The book is incredibly intimate, as the reader is privy to the private lives of all these characters and, despite their wish to mind their own business and no one else’s, when need be, they come together to help one another. I couldn’t help but wonder if this intimacy came from the original being written in French, and if so, the translator has done a brilliant job of capturing the essence of what the French conveyed. With other translated works I’ve felt the English version lacked something; with this book I had no such qualms.

Szalowski writes in celebration of the fact that no one is perfect. But the very fact that no one is perfect is what forges such strong relationships. And there is redemption in imperfection. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what’s hidden in your past, or the choices that you’ve made. It is possible to move on from these moments, and, in the moment of helping someone else, they’re not going to begrudge you for your past. They’ll thank you for what you have offered them here, today. The novel is also written in the spirit of hope. It is not okay to give up hope. If you keep asking, and giving, and believing, you may just end up with exactly what you wished for.

Fish Change Direction in Cold Weather is a novel as quirky as its title, but Szalowski’s characters are true, and likeable despite their flaws. It is impossible not to see some part of yourself in one of these characters, good or bad. And in this age where technology and the internet edge closer and closer to becoming our closest companions, it is reassuring to read a book where even without access to these advancements, human beings, at their core, want to help each other when times are tough.

Fish Change Direction in Cold Weather is published by Canongate Books.

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