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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Paper Houses

Dominique Fortier

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Paper Houses

Title: Paper Houses
Author: Dominique Fortier
Genre: Novel
Written: 2018 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 157 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Paper Houses - US
Paper Houses - UK
Paper Houses - Canada
Les villes de papier - Canada
Les villes de papier - France
Le città di carta - Italia
  • French title: Les villes de papier
  • Translated by Rhonda Mullins

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Our Assessment:

B+ : lovely little life-of-Emily-Dickinson variation

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Figaro . 4/11/2020 Thierry Clermont
Quill & Quire . 11/2019 Carly Vandergriendt

  From the Reviews:
  • "The action in Paper Houses is episodic and often understated. (...) This slim volume is propelled forward less by events in Dickinson's life -- there are few surprises here, at least for those who know the basic arc -- than by the handful of passages in which author and subject intersect." - Carly Vandergriendt, Quill & Quire

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Paper Houses is, as the French subtitle has it, 'a life of Emily Dickinson'. In very short chapters -- some only a single paragraph, most barely a page -- Dominique Fortier presents Dickinson's life, a chronological chronicle of scenes and stages from her life. Interspersed among these chapters are also a few in which the author herself comes to the fore, remarking on what she is doing and juxtaposing it with Dickinson's own life and experiences -- most notably in discussing the finding of, and settling in in, place, to work and live.
       At one point, early on, Fortier describes the research she does and her deliberations as to whether to visit the place she is writing about, Amherst and the two relevant houses there, The Homestead, where Dickinson spent most of her life, and the neighboring The Evergreens, where her brother and sister-in-law then lived. Fortier asks herself:

Simply put: is it better to have the knowledge and experience required to describe things as they truly are, or the freedom to invent them ? Why am I reluctant to make the four-hour drive ? When did I become afraid of inhabiting the book ?
       Of course, the idea of describing 'things as they truly are' can be little more than wishful thinking; any 'truth' about Dickinson will always remain elusive and uncertain, and while seeing -- a century later -- house and garden and possessions might help shape an impression, it surely doesn't get much closer to the heart of the matter (i.e. person) than flights of the imagination based on other research might. As Fortier understands, Paper Houses is, and can only be, 'a life'; as with any sort of attempt at biographical capture, it is of course only one of infinitely many possible variations. As Fortier acknowledges -- and embraces --: "Emily Dickinson is a blank screen, an empty page"; Paper Houses is one attempt to fill these.
       The title is taken from a concept introduced when brother Austin shows Emily the town of Linden on a Massachusetts map -- a place that does not exist. As Austin explains:
     It's a paper town. The people who drew the map invented it to be sure no one would steal their work.
       It's a concept fitting also for Dickinson's removed-from-life existence; as Fortier puts it:
     She has long been living in her paper house. One cannot have both a life and books -- unless one chooses books once and for all and records one's life in them.
       The scenes, vignettes, and observations about Dickinson's life are nicely done. The outlines of Dickinson's life, and many of the details, are, of course, familiar, but Fortier selects -- and elaborates on (and, occasionally, imagines) -- a sequence that does nicely evoke Dickinson's path, with an emphasis on its early formation, with the mature Dickinson then more settled in her ways.
       Wisely, Fortier comes to the conclusion that: "There is no sense looking for a turning point or crossroads in Emily Dickinson's life", not creating false drama where none existed. Fortier finds the alternative completely understandable:
There is no catastrophe, no tipping point, no rupture. Emily's withdrawal is gradual. Maybe quite simply, like most people who, as they age, grow more set in their ways and become more profoundly themselves, she gave into her natural penchant: solitude, and its corollary, silence. It isn't really that hard to imagine. When you think about it, it is hard to understand why more writers don't make the same choice.
       Fortier reminds the reader of her own presence in this writing- (and life-recreating-)exercise by bringing herself, and some of her own story, to the fore on occasions here, making all the clearer from where Fortier is coming in this -- her -- version of Dickinson's life, a welcome and useful gloss on the larger work that never becomes too intrusive (i.e. there's not too much of it).
       Paper Houses is a lovely read, and a very nice Dickinson-life, light and airy in a way that reminds of Dickinson's own verse, but with a similar haunting weight to it too. It is a fact-based fiction that manages to suggest a reading of Dickinson (the person) that seems quite plausible; if not entirely a substitute for actual biography, it is arguably more satisfying in conveying (one possible version of) how she became the person she did.

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 December 2020

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Paper Houses: Reviews: Emily Dickinson: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Canadian author Dominique Fortier was born in 1972.

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© 2020-2021 the complete review

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