The transformative power of loss is a tough subject for a first novel. But Elise Moser handles it with considerable skill in Because I Have Loved and Hidden It (from Cormorant Books). From writing award-winning short stories to editing anthologies and buying for bookstores, Moser is a longstanding fixture on the Can Lit scene. Her highly anticipated debut novel is told from the perspective of Julia, a middle-aged woman living in Moser’s own hometown of Montreal. Julia has just experienced a double-whammy of loss: Her mother has died and her married lover, Nicholas, is missing in Morocco.
The events hit Julia hard, not least because she’s left with more questions than answers. A mysterious birth certificate bearing her parents’ names comes into her possession. And in the midst of worrying about Nicholas, she develops a strong attraction to his wife. A perpetual drifter, Julia is forced to take a long, hard look at her life. What she discovers — about herself and the people she thought she knew — is both illuminating and surprising.
The strength of this book — its rich and sensual language — is also its biggest weakness. Moser has a tendency to get carried away with her descriptions. Julia imagines Nicholas in Morocco, “gazing with her at the wall tiled with geometric patterns of turquoise, royal blue, green and pearl-white, his beautifully shaped head brushing the upward-arching branches of the olive trees, his dark hair a nimbus against their pale spiked leaves.” Moser is clearly skilled at observational writing; there’s just a bit too much of it here. The tendency fits with the character flaws of Julia, who can be self-absorbed and, at times, overly analytical. But the surplus detail distracts from the strong central storyline. Some careful pruning would benefit this novel to no end.
Moser’s vignettes of Montreal, however, give the novel a great sense of place. Carré St Louis park is, “an anomaly, colonized by petty criminals, homeless people, young punks with dogs and guitars, though it is faced on all sides by expensive old greystone houses filled with actors, writers and artists — the cream of the Québécois crop.” The sights, sounds, smells and even tastes of Julia’s Plateau neighbourhood are articulated in glorious Technicolor. The reader is led on a journey around Montreal — and Moser’s obvious passion for her city makes it a very pleasant trip.
Moser earns props, too, for depicting a character for whom sexual attraction is fluid. Although she’s currently involved with a man, Julia’s past relationships have included affairs with women. One of her exes, Lauren, is still a part of her everyday life — as a friend with benefits. Julia’s new attraction to Deepa, the wife of her lover, is fraught with emotional complexities. Yet it happens very naturally: a lingering glance here, a brush of the hand there, a gradual increase in time spent wondering what Deepa is doing and thinking. And although the resolution of their relationship is a little unsatisfying, the sex is steamy enough to knock some sense into Julia. “For the first night in what has felt like forever, Julia does not think of Nicholas once between coming to bed and falling asleep,” writes Moser, after they make love. “And she does not dream of him.”