In a few weeks, Jean-Michel Fortier’s new novel The Electric Baths will be reviewed in the new issue of World Literature Today, translated by Katherine Hastings. A galloping read populated by an inordinate number of widows and tragic ends. There are some bloody bits but you’re caught between gasping and giggling. So strange!

But before anyone was waving around a gun in The Electric Baths, a shot was fired in The Unknown Huntsman (2014; Trans. Katherine Hastings, 2016).

Jean-Michel Fortier’s The Unknown Huntsman is the not-so-cozy village tale that Louise Penny will never write.

The root of the tale is unremarkable, for “as we were saying, human nature never ceases to amaze, especially in this village, where meetings blend one into the next, although never in quite the same way”.

But the village is both stereotypical and unique; Fortier strikes a balance between the two, pats the chair alongside and beckons readers to join. Take care: this invitation is not uncomplicated.

When I began reading this book, it was a rainy afternoon during the lockdown to “flatten the curve” of a novel coronavirus, I was taking the subway to pick up a grocery order. It was the middle of the day and just walking a few blocks to the station the hems of my jeans were sodden.

There were only eight people riding the train. The entire train. It occurred to me that while many people were complaining that they couldn’t leave their homes, for me leaving the home made the pandemic more real than any news feed. Normally from my seat on the subway, I could reach out and touch eight people. Eight people on a single car would have been an extraordinarily quiet day. Eight people on a train would have been unthinkable.

Two things happened as I read and travelled. First, Jean-Michel Fortier made me laugh. There are many sharp and funny statements and observations, like this one:

“We notice the priest is sweating more than usual, perhaps he has an upset stomach this evening, or maybe it’s nerves. We don’t dare ask; a holy man’s intestinal health is between him and God, but at least the meeting hasn’t dragged on forever, and now we can go home and keep an eye on our things, oh yes, we’re going to keep our eyes peeled from now on.”

Next, I realized that I know this village. This village with “Leaven the baker, who’s always saying he’d make an excellent father if only a woman would give him a chance”, “old Giorgio Cantarini…no one takes him seriously, not since the day…Lisa Campbell swore he used to peek under her skirt while she swept up hair-clippings” whose war widower’s pension affords him a steady diet of beans with tomato sauce. And there’s Sybille, whose hair is “in a constant state of humanitarian crisis, and could certainly use a good combing to put its internal affairs in order” and the doctor who is “wheezing from his asthma”.

More than that, I am currently inhabiting this village.

On one hand, I’m in the meeting in the church basement, with “all those brains whirring a mile a minute, including ours, but what should we do, what should we do, if we’re going to do something it will mean interrupting the meeting, but that’s never been done before, at least not as far back as we can remember”.

On the other hand, I’m on the subway with Leaven and Giorgio, Lisa and Sybille, on the subway with the doctor and the mayor and the orphaned children. The world is uncomfortably small and the crisis is uncomfortably large. And there are individuals with authority making decisions while the rest of us circle, muttering about what’s to be done.

The language is succinct and the plot is extravagant: Jean-Michel Fortier invited me to the meeting but he also pulled the chair out from under me.