Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 589
In structure, Les Fous de Bassan (In the Shadow of the Wind, 1983) marked a new departure for Anne Hébert. Drawing on her reading of the American novelist William Faulkner, and especially of his novel The Sound and the Fury (1929), Hébert utilizes a number of speakers to tell her story, including the mentally defective Percival Brown, who was clearly inspired by the character Benjy in Faulkner’s novel.
In the Shadow of the Wind is also unlike Hébert’s other novels in that the orientation of the characters is British, rather than French. Though her fictional community of Griffin Creek is located in the province of Quebec, its founders were British loyalists who fled north during the American Revolution. However, their Protestantism is presented as just as repressive as the Jansenist Catholicism that Hébert attacks elsewhere.
Appropriately, the novel begins with “The Book of the Reverend Nicholas Jones.” In the fall of 1982, this leader of a vanishing flock reflects on the past, on the distant ancestors he cherishes; on the mother who never loved him; on his barren wife, who tactfully removed herself from his life by committing suicide; and on his violent desire for the two Atkins girls, who were murdered on August 31, 1936. Now instead of being victimized by women and his desire for them, he exercises his power over the middle-aged twins who have waited on him since he took them in as children.
The second section of the novel consists of a series of letters written to a friend in Florida by Stevens Brown, who has returned to his native community in 1936 after a five-year absence. Stevens charms his way into the bed of his cousin, the widowed Maureen Brown Macdonald, though as far as the community knows, he is just a handyman who sleeps in the barn. The final letter is dated August 31.
“The Book of Nora Atkins,” which follows, reveals the innocence of the fifteen-year-old writer, who has just discovered her power over men but has no idea how dangerous it can be to arouse their desires. Her seventeen-year-old cousin Olivia Atkins is more wary, and the men in her family are determined to protect her. However, they cannot keep her away from Nora, and her association with Nora will prove disastrous.
In “The Book of Percival Brown and of Several Others,” dated 1936, Hébert moves to the crime, or rather, to the discovery that the Atkins girls have disappeared, the subsequent investigation, and the search for their remains. Nora’s body washes up at the end of the book. In “Olivia of the High Seas,” Olivia describes her death and explains that her body was washed out to sea.
The book ends as it began, in 1982. In a final letter to his friend, Stevens Brown explains that he has just escaped from the mental hospital where he has spent the last thirty-seven years. Though he survived World War II, he emerged insane. However, as he describes how he killed the Atkins girls, a crime of which he was later acquitted, it is evident that Stevens was probably unhinged long before the war.
Nevertheless, In the Shadow of the Wind is much more than a story of one man’s guilt or even of the link between sexual desire and violence. Essentially, it is a novel about a community riddled with moral rot, made up of people who see even affection as a sign of weakness, and led by a minister who is incapable of the unconditional love his faith demands.
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