The Bull Calf

Reviews of Fiction, Poetry, and Literary Criticism

Cures for Hunger: A Memoir by Deni Y. Béchard

Reviewed by Allison LaSorda

Deni Y. Béchard

Cures for Hunter: A Memoir. Goose Lane, 2012.

319 pp.

$29.95

Deni Béchard's Cures for Hunger is a difficult and thoughtful memoir that centers on the author's relationship with his father. Shortly after the outset of the book, a young Béchard comes to find that his father, André, is not the man he imagined him to be – he holds a criminal history hidden behind a series of self-composed fictions. This premise acts as the central conflict in a subtly charged coming-of-age story.

It is a common theme – a son wanting to be like his father, idealizing him, and then, at a certain age, wanting to assert his individual personhood. However, in this case, the natural desire to emulate the father may should, perhaps, be fought. An exemplary unreliable narrator, André has cultivated a mysterious, criminal life that may or may not include the use of aliases for different illegal activities: the beating of men three times his size; robberies of more than 50 banks and jewelry stores; and, possibly, another family.

Criminal activity aside, though portrayed as a charmer of women, André is hard to like. When Béchard asks his father if he believes in God, André shrugs and answers, “life’s a big joke. God’s playing a joke on us” (59). While the son searches for solid answers, his father laughs him off, preferring instead to live in the realm of humour and fiction. Similarly, when Béchard is a teen and broaches the topic of his father’s family history, André responds with evasions. The boy and his father come together and then are drawn apart. They frequently move homes, and eventually Béchard divides his time amongst members of his family and different cities in Canada and the United States. In trying to separate himself from his arcane father, Béchard is, in a sense, reenacting his father’s own escape from a reality he wishes to leave behind. 

Amidst physical movements and memories, Béchard continually brings his focus back to storytelling, and the resulting blurred line between fiction and truth leaves Cures for Hunger straddling a form of nonfiction-fiction. Storytelling can be a means of self-discovery, but can also conceal the true self – masking a true history with conflated memories and exaggerated events.  

Béchard began to explore his creativity through writing more seriously in his adolescence, and he reflects on the sort of novel he was originally drawn to: “novels seemed the product of that tension, between parents and children, between those they loved and struggled against” (251). Though he goes on to ruminate on the overwhelming feeling of realizing that he knew his father very little, what becomes more important is Béchard’s demonstration of this tension within his own memoir; he has documented the struggle of coming to know another person. Describing the days after his father’s death, Béchard explains that he “wasn’t as interested in the facts behind his stories” (314). This letting go is a striking conclusion to a memoir that, for the most part, strives for answers.

By the end of Béchard’s search, both he and the reader are left with a sense of emptiness, and the story suggests comfort in this lack of resolution. The emotional strain between a boy’s search for the truth and his father’s insistence on shaping it remains central as the two grow apart. Cures for Hunger demonstrates that some conflicts cannot, and perhaps should not, be reconciled; rather than leaving a reader unsatisfied, it is refreshingly realistic. Besides, in the end, André is not completely opaque. Through tales, he demonstrates what human instincts interest him, what he feels is important to impart to his children, and what he chooses to withhold.

It feels as though Béchard has ultimately embraced his family’s tradition of being a storyteller or agrémenteur. The further we read, the more it seems the sparse writing style of Béchard’s memoir is indicative of the gaps left in his own story. We are reminded we can only know as much as another person chooses to reveal to us – the rest is just us assuming, and, in doing so, reflecting back on ourselves.

 

At press time: Allison LaSorda lives in Toronto. Her reviews have appeared in Lemon Hound, The Malahat Review, and The Fiddlehead.

 

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