MaleficiumBy MARTINE DESJARDINS (Talonbooks; 2009/12)

A freeform oddity from Quebec that warrants a recommendation, if for no other reason than the fact that it’s so insanely inventive.  MALEFICIUM has some problems in its construction and resolution, but the whole thing is quite seductive in its strangeness and grotesquerie (the fact that author Martine Desjardins is of the same nationality as David Cronenberg is evident throughout), with sinuous prose and a cast of characters that includes djinns, shape-shifters and all manner of monsters both human and otherwise.

ARABIAN NIGHTS is explicitly recalled in these pages, seeing as how the book is concerned with storytelling, and the stories in question with the romance of the Orient, circa the 1800s.  It’s all tied together by a renegade priest whose heretical memoirs form the text under discussion, which consists of transcriptions of eight confessions, the first seven of which are by men struck with various debilitating afflictions.  Each recollection takes place in some exotic Oriental locale, and involves a supernaturally-endowed woman with a severely scarred upper lip and a tendency to blaspheme.

The confessions all pivot on some exotic collection, meaning this novel can be taken as a treatise on the dangers of excessive hoarding.  In the first confession a nose-less man relates how during a hunt for exotic perfumes in India he met the mysterious woman in question, appearing as a mystic with bleeding stigmata wounds.  Next we get a confession by a severely scarred man who claims the woman appeared to him in Africa, and possessed a most unexpected, and deadly, physical mutation.

Further confessions involve a rare insect collector who happens upon a most unique creature amid underground churches in Ethiopia; a Yemen based architectural enthusiast who seeks, unwisely, to ascend an especially tall building; a collector of sea turtle shells who discovers an even more coveted type of shell in Syria; a Persian carpet lover who finds the carpet of his dreams, but not without a grave sacrifice on his part; and a soap maven in Palestine who learns how to extract the world’s most potent type of soap oil.

The eighth and final confession is by the hare-lipped woman who figured so prominently in all the previous accounts.  Here she relates her own history, which turns out to be profoundly nightmarish, involving horrific abuse and mutilation.  It’s in this account that the ARABIAN NIGHTS motif is made explicit, with the woman forced to become a storyteller a la Scheherazade.  It’s also here that the author attempts to tie together the preceding accounts, although the attempt isn’t too successful.  Indeed, this final chapter left me with more questions than answers, as it calls into question the validity of everything that preceded it, with a final revelation on the second-to-last page that could have used a lot more explanation than what little is provided.