Author Archives: Carol Bruneau

About Carol Bruneau

Carol Bruneau is the acclaimed author of five novels and three short story collections, including A Bird on Every Tree, shortlisted for the 2018 Thomas Head Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award and the Dartmouth Book Award for Fiction. Her first novel, Purple for Sky, won the 2001 Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award and the Dartmouth Book Award. Re-released this spring, her novel Glass Voices was a Globe and Mail Best Book for 2007 and has become a book club favourite. Her 2015 novel, These Good Hands, is a fictional treatment of the life of French sculptor Camille Claudel. Bruneau’s reviews, stories and essays have appeared nation-wide in newspapers, journals and anthologies, and two of her novels have been published internationally. Her eighth book, the novel A Circle on the Surface, was published by Nimbus Publishing/Vagrant Press in 2018. She lives in Halifax with her husband and their dog and alpha cat.

Animal Kingdom

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Richie and I were almost finished our morning constitutional, once around the lake, when he sprang it: “Why don’t we have a baby?”

The call of a passing loon muzzled my response as I stooped to pat a French bulldog, a veritable blob of lard on the trail. These pre-work strolls are one way of fighting our middle-age spread. More importantly, they’re a chance for me to see dogs. Richie isn’t a dog person.

Straightening up, I brushed a pine needle off his jacket’s Why sleep with a drip? logo.

“That is so juvenile.” I laughed and sipped my Timmy’s—double-doubles also part of our routine. Richie gripped his cup in his teeth, felt for his keys. A plumbing contractor, he’s always feeling for something. Likes a bit of fresh air before facing the day’s “sore” gas, as he pronounces it.

“I’m serious,” he said.

I listened to a squirrel nattering, gathering acorns for winter though the leaves had only just started to drop. A Shih Tzu charged after the bulldog. Neither breed makes great petting material, as I prefer larger dogs. Given the slim pickings, I might as well have been at work, getting ready to open the shop. Then Richie blindsided me again: “Here’s the deal, Cher. I’ll give you a dog if you give me a baby.”

Like being laid into by a Bullmastiff, I nearly fell out of my flip-flops. Next, it was as though some pricey shop swag had tipped over and smashed: we both went mute as if gauging the damage. Birds and squirrels alike shut up. You could’ve heard a salamander scoot for cover. Richie was serious?

“I mean, hon—you’re not exactly a teenager.” He shrugged helplessly. “Piss or get off the pot, right?”

“A baby? Really? For starters, you have to take classes, learn to breathe and that.”

“You can’t just get that on YouTube?”

“Drive me to work.” I centred my thoughts on the relaxation CDs collecting dust in the shop. Would pairing each six-disc Call of Nature set with a pine-scented candle help move them?


ceramic flower brick by Joan Bruneau with many flowers and creatures

Autumn Flower Brick by Joan Bruneau


Richie didn’t speak again until we got in the truck. “We’ve been together three years. Isn’t a baby the next step? I mean, where else can the relationship go? Think of the fun we’d have making it.”

Fun. My libido was a twinge roughly in the vicinity of the IUD I hoped to have removed someday before I expired—and not in hopes of pregnancy. “No, you piss off. I’m forty years old!” He also knew I’d wanted a puppy since forever, long before he’d entered the scene. “Besides, I know you’re not serious. I see that look you get watching people’s dog videos.”

“Right, I get it. You’re too busy. Scared of being a shitty parent.”

“Sure, okay, whatever.” I took a hasty swig. Lukewarm coffee dribbled down my blouse better suited, perhaps, to a nubile teen. I was happy to have reached the stage where of the three Bs—business, boobs and babies—only the first rated.

“Really, Cheryl. I’m not kidding. You’d be great.”

“You’re being an ass.” I shook his empty cup. “Never wanted a kid before, why now? Feeling your age?” Age was something we skirted, his being four years younger.

We gunned it out of the gravel lot. “Like, all this time building up the plumbing business. Who’ll I leave it to?”

“That’s just BS.”

Yet, dropping me off, he sounded hopeful: “You’ll consider my offer?”

I jumped out of the truck, gazing at the portable sign I rent by the month and have outside the shop. I retrieved a half-eaten burger from underneath it. What every woman doesn’t want: picking up after littering arseholes.

A relief letting myself into the shop. A place where a gal can be at home with her thoughts and feelings without some guy inflicting his: this describes my business plan. Bed to bath décor and self-pampering items for the woman who has everything. And feeling in need of something right now, I bee-lined to the handbags I’d brought in for fall, the best Prada knock-offs available. Faux python, fringed pleather. I selected a rust-coloured one, admired its proportions against mine in the mirror. What I saw was a person in command of her likes and dislikes, of life generally, and not shy about letting anyone know. The purse complemented some other fall merchandise: cinnamon and pumpkin spice candles and marsh heather wreaths decorated with red, orange and gold silk leaves. The comforts and joys of post-Back to School, anticipating Thanksgiving. Shelves of summer stuff hadn’t sold though: beach bling, fairy figurines, tole-painted garden accents, the whole nine yards. But any luck, with kids out of their hair my regulars would have more time to shop.

First things first though, I rustled up the letters to re-jig the signage. What Women Want!!! Endless summer. B.O.G.O.!! Richie deserves credit for coming up with the store name: What Women Want. Not babies, at this stage in life. His oversight stung me. Here’s a man who, at petting zoos, lets goats eat from his pockets but won’t allow a dog in the house. A guy who thinks nothing of unclogging condoms from septic systems yet balks at using one.

I dug for my phone, punched in his number. When he answered, his voice echoed as if trapped in a closet. A trickling sound triggered my need to pee. “You know how I feel about children. How dare you raise it?” I said, and hung up.

Busying myself, I ran the feather duster over some crystal elephants, pigs and rabbits, all sweetly displayed on mirrored shelves, and tidied some hand-painted rocks. I rearranged bath bombs and cupcake soaps so realistic-looking that someone’s toddler had taken a bite out of one. As I orange-stickered the summer clearance stock, a sudden gloom descended: my entire adult life I’d made a point of avoiding exactly what Richie had suggested, starting a family. Though I’d always wanted a puppy, I’d never had space for one. It didn’t seem fair to get a dog then leave it crated all day.

My phone tinkled. Richie. I let his call go to voice mail. I put on a squirrel CD, lit a balsam candle. Composed a pitch: Bring the outdoors to the bedroom, let him take you glamping not camping. The trick, I told my clientele, was letting your man think you were doing it for him: bubble baths by candlelight, juniper and jasmine perfuming the sheets. I dusted the angels by the cash, re-arranged the plaques. My favourite salad is a G&T. Every hour is wine o’clock. Taking a break, I watched a talking dog on YouTube. Maybe I could start a sideline in canine accessories, do for dogs what others had done for cats—but not until the summer merch cleared. I visualised a promotion, Queen For A Day, raffle tickets on patioware with a dollar-store tiara thrown in. Treat yourself!!! If necessary, the beach bling could be stored, cruise season was just six months away. The season of legal abandonment, a mom called it once, juggling twins while she hunted for dragonfly earrings.

Until meeting mothers at the shop, the most exposure I’d had to kids was driving past the daycare. Most people know better than to bring children into the store, thanks to the Break it, you buy it reminders posted everywhere. Fair warning. Still, ladies with babies and toddlers sometimes slip in, quilted diaper bags slung over their shoulders. The awful pastel accessories. Wipes, bottles, diapers, formula. Imagine leaving the house with all that crap. I draw the absolute line at strollers. The stroller stays outside, I’ve said on several occasions. What would I do with a baby? Then there’s the crying.

Fighting my gloom, I imagined Richie’s bribe. Visualized a panoply of breeds. Shepherds, huskies, collies. Sheepdogs, doodles. Beagles, pit bulls, basenjis, rotties, barring schnauzers, cockapoos, spaniels. In a welter of imagined yips, visions of pink and blue suddenly swarmed my brain, a Walmart’s worth of baby stuff. And it hit me squarely, honestly, how wanting things is what makes the world go around.

Things you didn’t even realize you wanted until someone planted the seed.

Especially things that might be harder to get with age.

Something you unexpectedly decide might not be such a bad idea after all.

A baby.

The phone rang. Richie, again. This time I picked up. His voice was a freight train: “You won’t believe this morning’s job. Kid flushed a dinosaur down the john, the mom flushed a diaper. By accident. What was I thinking: a kid?” He was on a break, would see me in a sec.

When he walked in, he was all “Whatcha saying, Cher?” Like the deal had never been proposed and nothing had come between us. His coveralls were stained and he smelled a bit bad. Oddly, he went straight to the purses too, chose my fav.

“You should be home taking a shower.” I waited for him to bring it up. Knock me over with a feather. I wanted him to bring it up.

“Kids running the show at this place. Total animals. The parents, nice people but useless. Epic failures. If I ever mention a baby again, shoot me. No wonder they make you take breathing lessons. Fuck.”

Only then I noticed something moving under the top of Richie’s coveralls. When he tugged down the zipper, a tiny head squirmed free. It was a teacup Chihuahua that just fit in his palm, smaller than a wallet.

“Who knows what got into me, springing that on you? Must’ve been something I was smoking. Us having a kid!? Craziness. Don’t worry, it’s passed.”

Gentle as could be, Richie slipped the pup into my favourite purse. “There you go, babe. Accessorize. ‘Pimp yo’ puppy.’ Like her?”

I held the purse tight. The pup was like a baby kangaroo inside its pouch.

“Looks good on you, Cher.”

It did, and, short of Timmies becoming some magic elixir of youth, I had what I wanted. Sort of.

A Conversation with Carol Bruneau

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bruneauThese Good Hands is Carol Bruneau’s sixth novel. Published in May 2015 by Cormorant Books, These Good Hands is a fictionalized biography of nineteenth-century French artist Camille Claudel. The book explores mental illness, misogyny, compassion, and the enduring power of art. It focuses in part on the strained relationship Claudel had with her mother — a relationship tempered by social attitudes about women’s “proper” behaviour.

Understorey Magazine spoke with Carol about her inspiration for These Good Hands, what she learned about Claudel, motherhood, and illness, and how she kept writing through the ten years required to create this book.

Understorey Magazine: What inspired you to write about Camille Claudel?

Carol Bruneau: I first heard of Claudel ten years ago through a tiny display, part of a Rodin exhibition, at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Rodin was Claudel’s teacher. He was forty-two and she eighteen when they first met in Paris in the early 1880s and began their affair. Imagine, a middle-aged instructor hitting on a talented teenage student who was keen to get ahead in a tough career. Sex was an assumed perk of artistic “collaboration” — this at a time when women artists had to get government dispensations to wear pants. The Rodin display told little about Claudel other than that she was Rodin’s student/model/muse and mistress and that she died after spending thirty years in an asylum. The fact that she was a brilliant sculptor was mentioned, but more or less in passing.

UM: Motherhood shaped Claudel’s life, even though she was never a mother herself. How does motherhood figure in your novel?

CB: Claudel’s mother felt that her sexual behaviour — her relationship with Rodin — was an unforgivable disgrace to the family. When Claudel was in her twenties, symptoms of mental illness began to manifest and her mother thought her even more of a social liability. In 1913, Claudel was committed to a French asylum and diagnosed with what we might call schizophrenia. Her mother never visited, although she corresponded with her occasionally by sending small care packages to the asylum, mostly food.

Even more heartbreaking, on several occasions Claudel’s doctors found her well enough to be released into the care of her family, and each time Claudel’s mother absolutely refused to allow it. In letters, she wrote that Claudel had “caused them enough suffering” and under no circumstances would she accept responsibility for her daughter.

Social stigmas regarding mental illness and standards of “moral” behaviour certainly played into this, but even so, the mother’s lack of compassion is striking, and certainly seems, from our perspective today, to be unusually harsh.

My novel uses key pieces of Claudel’s artwork as touchstones in her narrative. I’ve also invented a work-in-progress called “Maman et Enfant” that Claudel creates and hopes her mother will appreciate as a token of their “natural” affection.

There have also been suggestions that Claudel and Rodin had at least one child together and it’s easy to assume that she had an abortion at some point; this is another motherhood-related plot point in my novel. Claudel’s inability to become a mother herself may have caused her further grief, especially given her difficult relationship with her own mother.

UM: How is this book and its themes of motherhood, misogyny, and mental illness, related to your previous novels?

CB: These Good Hands revisits themes explored in my previous novels, but considers them from more extreme, even radical, perspectives.
My 2005 novel Berth likely predisposed me to Claudel’s situation. Berth is set in the 1980s and explores the limits of maternal selflessness; how an otherwise “good” mother risks compromising her child’s interests to act in her own largely sexual interests. The central character in Berth suffers the psychological effects of social isolation and ever-present misogyny, acting in ways that I think shed light on persistent double standards regarding “proper” female versus male behaviour. Berth was a bit like getting my feet wet, preparation for diving into the more intense, more exacting challenge of writing about a clinical case of mental illness and the research that necessitated.

My last novel, Glass Voices, revolves around a mother who loses a child in the Halifax Explosion, and how trying to reconcile herself to this loss — and the accompanying guilt she feels over surviving when her child apparently hasn’t — prevents her from seizing life’s possibilities. In a way, These Good Hands revisits the kind of longing that this character feels, but looks instead at the severed mother-daughter connection from the child’s perspective.

As for the theme of motherhood, it’s like oxygen in just about all of my writing. A mother of three, I lost my own mother while in my mid-twenties and before I had my children. So motherhood is a theme that continually intrigues me with its endless variations to explore. Of all the things one can write about, in all its permutations motherhood is one of the most interesting, timeless, and universal.

UM: What is Camille Claudel’s legacy?

CB: Because she destroyed much of her later work — and because during her long incarceration, pieces went missing — her oeuvre only comprises ninety pieces or so, including originals and copies. A good deal of her work done as Rodin’s apprentice was incorporated into his famous pieces. She was expert at sculpting hands and feet, for instance, and made many of the figures for his Gate of Hell, yet art historians balk at ascribing her authorship of specific pieces.

As far as I’ve determined, at that time, no other European sculptor with skills of Claudel’s calibre used the medium to explore themes so directly related to women, and in ways that refuted — subverted — the romantic, self-serving representations her male peers created. In works such as Clotho (1893), Claudel focused on telling the truth about women’s lives. Eschewing any traditional ideas of beauty in art, pieces like this must have blindsided her contemporaries, and attest to her courage and fiercely distinctive vision.

As an inspiration to artists generally, her legacy is huge. It is revered in France. In North America, sadly, it’s barely recognized but this is already changing, I think, as more people discover her. Better late than never. The fact that her art transcends and truly outshines the tragic circumstances of its creation is inspiration to all.

UM: These Good Hands took ten years to write. How do you maintain commitment to and enthusiasm for a project over such a period?

CB: I take inspiration from my subjects themselves. Glass Voices took eight years to write, and in that case I’d think about the perseverance required of Halifax Explosion survivors any time I felt whiny. With this book, the tragedy of Claudel herself made me determined to persevere — although on several occasions I almost despaired because of a perceived disinterest in its subject, and filed the thing away “for good” in a drawer. It would have become the permanent elephant-in-the-room if several friends and family members hadn’t pestered me about it. And a couple of trips to France — after the initial trip to do research — fanned the flames. Then, in 2012, I saw the world’s only permanent collection of Claudel’s work in the Musee Ste. Croix in Poitiers, which is also the home of my ancestors and, well, that was the nudge I needed — that and a timely note from a friend about rejecting rejection.

UM: Now that the book is out, how will you spend your summer?

CB: Well, having just finished a new collection of short stories, I’m presently trying to pick up the threads of a novel I started in 2010. I’ll be doing some readings in Toronto, and then, I hope, hiding out on my deck, writing.

For a chance to win a copy of These Good Hands leave a comment below! Courtesy of Cormorant Books.