Small Mammal Wisdom
Review by Zoe McKenna
November 19, 2022
The British Columbia Review
In the final months of 2022, the initial COVID-19 lockdowns of 2020 have transitioned from reality into memory. While that era of the pandemic fades away, what remains is the widespread experience of isolation. For many, the first wave of lockdowns marked the first confrontation with aloneness, and all the complicated emotions that accompany it.
Spence, the protagonist of Victoria author David M. Wallace’s debut novel, The Little Brudders of Misércorde, is stuck in the limbo of seclusion, and has been for some time. A widow somewhat estranged from his only child, Spence spends his days attending infrequent French classes with dwindling attendance, “studying in the morning. Class in the afternoon. Reading in the evening.” Aside from the commute to his lessons and infrequent visits with his daughter, Spence is alone in his Montreal apartment, save for the company of Thierry — a talking mouse.
Spence’s introduction to Thierry begins in the usual ways one might expect to meet a mouse — glimpses of grey fur or a long tail in his peripheral vision. Spence, prone to talking out loud to himself, is startled to one day be met with rude protestations from under the bed — “Tabarnac! Some people is trying to sleep. ‘av some ostie de respect, câlisse.”
Thierry, a bilingual mouse, has invited himself to share Spence’s apartment. Vulgar and prone to mischief (or even crime), Thierry isn’t Spence’s first choice for a roommate. Yet, there’s something about Theirry’s bluntness that intrigues Spence, and from Theirry’s perspective, Spence is in dire need of his companionship: “Nobody ever visit you, man. So, I tink, what de ‘ell, why not take a chance. Mebbe dis guy could use de company.”
While Spence and Thierry are peculiar with plentiful shortcomings, both have undeniable charm. Wallace’s immense talent for character and voice is quickly apparent, managing to inject more complexity and captivation into a mouse than other authors afford their human characters. Despite their differences, Spence and Thierry become fast friends. Spence, newly arrived to Montreal after retirement from his long career as a teacher in Vancouver, relies on Thierry’s fluency to improve his French. Throughout the book, Thierry switches back and forth between English and French. While anglophone readers may feel a little out of their depth when it comes to understanding Thierry’s dialogue, his cutting wit and dirty jokes transcend language. In exchange for these linguistic lessons, Spence gives Thierry a safe place to live, eventually teaching him how to read and introducing him to religion. Their relationship swiftly becomes one marked by both playful banter and intense vulnerability.
Just as Spence and Theirry’s relationship oscillates between joy and sadness, Little Brudders is told in two distinct timelines with drastically different tones. The present timeline details the unlikely duo’s adventures, but is interspersed with chapters from Spence’s challenging past. Recurring issues with drugs and alcohol pepper memories of the loss of Spence’s wife, custody battles over his daughter, and his abuse within the Catholic church. These scenes are visceral and deeply upsetting, their sorrow and tension temporarily lifted only by a return to the humour and strangeness of the present narrative. Wallace works a careful balance between these traumatic memories and lighthearted jokes, all while unraveling the mystery of Spence’s past piece by piece as the novel goes along.
Despite his roughness, Thierry offers Spence safety and softness that becomes essential in his healing journey. This journey isn’t simple or straightforward, but rather painful and very messy — not something Spence could do alone.. Their closeness becomes a testament to the importance and value of male friendships, albeit an unconventional example. As the novel progresses, and the two friends work through some of Spence’s more distressing memories, Thierry serves as a means by which Spence can reconnect with the church as he returns to religion, this time seeing it through Thierry’s new eyes.
At no point in the novel is it possible to predict what comes next. Wallace moves deftly between pain and pleasure, humour and hurt, and human and mouse. As the plot becomes more and more eccentric, it becomes impossible to be certain what is and isn’t real. While the end of the novel concludes with what appears to be a clean and logical explanation, accepting this resolution at face value feels simplistic in a way that is at odds with the rest of the story. Instead, an embrace of the questions that remain make room for interpretation, allowing readers to take away any multitude of explanations, unconfined by what is considered believable. “Moses talked to a burning bush, after all,” Spence muses.
Read the full review at The British Columbia Review.