Few readers outside of Quebec had heard of Samuel Archibald’s Arvida until it landed on this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist.
Originally published in French in 2011, Arvida became an overnight success in Quebec, selling more than 25,000 copies (almost unheard of for a book of short fiction, or a debut for that matter), and was picked up by Biblioasis and translated into English.
“For me, Arvida has really been a gift that keeps on giving,” says Archibald. “One year after it was first published, I went to see my grandmother, an important character in my life and in the book, in Arvida’s cemetery, and left a copy of the book on her grave, with a dedication that read: Thank you for everything.”
Set in Archibald’s hometown of Arvida, Quebec, a place built by philanthropist and billionaire Arthur Vining Davis, this collection of short fiction is rooted in Quebecois folk stories and traditions.
“I guess writing about a place very few other Quebecois writers had written about helped me find a voice and a style that wasn’t reminiscent of other writers,” says Archibald. “I’m not the first ever to write about a small town or living in the woods, but I’m pretty much the first to write about this very town and its inhabitants.”
With 14 stories in the collection, Arvida is filled with wild beasts, innocent children, haunted houses, exile, ritual mutilation, mystery, and evil inhabitants. At the core of the book is a fascination with longing and love, terror and wonder, and how where we come from somehow shapes, and informs who we are.
Stories like “Antigonish,” “Paris in the Rain (Blood Sisters III),” and “A Mirror in the Mirror,” capture elements of estrangement, longing, yesteryear and more. “Antigonish,” takes readers beyond the metaphor of America’s idealism, and through the winding roads of the Cabot Trail at night in the midst of a storm.
“Arvida is a tribute to a resilient, stubborn, and proud bunch of people. It’s about the ways we maintain and protect our communities in the face of changing times, exile, and oblivion. There’s always a dark side to small town or country life, and I never wanted to write the literary equivalent to a Norman Rockwell painting. More like something from Alex Colville, you know. Still and sometimes peaceful, but always haunted by the idea that something very bad is about to happen.”
One of the collection’s darkest and most violent stories, “Jigai,” the “book’s black heart,” is a gothic and gory tale. Set in modern Japan, the story takes roots in two lesbian lovers who ritually mutilate themselves – at first, out of protection, and later out of love and the intense pleasure mutilation releases – and highlights the fate of women in patriarchal culture.
“Given the very graphic and disturbing nature of the story, some readers were grossed-out by it and insisted that, being set in a distant Japan, it had nothing to do with the other stories. I think quite the opposite. By including it in Arvida, I wanted to make a point about however foreign and distant its tale of extreme love and ritual violence might appear, it’s only a nightmare away from all of us.”