The Tin Flute is a French Canadian classic, and the title has lost something in translation- its original French title is Bonheur d’occasion, or ‘Secondhand Happiness’, which is both more poetic and more descriptive. Set in Montreal in the 1940s, Tin Flute follows the Lacasse family, who live in St Henri, a poor French neighbourhood near Montreal’s industrial areas.
The novel focuses largely on the Lacasse’s eldest child, Florentine. She is 19 and working as a waitress at a diner, funneling her income towards her parents’ household expenses and dreaming of a better life. While working at the diner she meets and falls for the ‘mercurial’ Jean Levesque and in turn Jean’s friend Emmanuel falls for her. Florentine lives at home with her mother, Rose-Anna, who is pregnant with her 7th child, her father, Azarius, who can’t hold down a job, and the rest of her siblings. Despair and poverty stalk the Lacasse family at every turn- WWII is looming, they are about to be evicted from their rental housing, one of the children has been diagnosed with leukemia, and Azarius can’t stop himself from jumping headlong into schemes that cost them money they don’t have. Even Florentine’s love stories are unhappy- Jean is a selfish jerk and Florentine’s one night of happiness with him leads exactly where you’d guess; following this, Florentine takes up with Emmanuel for reasons having nothing to do with love and everything to with self-preservation.
For anyone visiting Montreal or wanting an idea of its history, Roy’s book adds memorable context. The details of a Montreal winter in the 1940’s are sharp and visceral- the biting wind coming down the mountain, the industry fumes wafting over the poorer neighbourhoods, the lingering effects of the Great Depression, the lack of opportunities for French Canadians.
Although I liked the Montreal feels the book gave me, I didn’t really enjoy reading this. I have sympathy for Florentine and Rose-Anna but I didn’t like either of them and it was frustrating to watch them make choices that would almost certainly lead to more despair. In particular, I had real issues with the Jean Levesque romance- as with John Fante’s main lead Arturo Bandino in Ask the Dust (also a supposed ‘classic’), Jean reads like a prototype ‘pickup artist’ jerk- he alternately ignores Florentine or treats her like dirt. Not only do I have a hard time understanding what Florentine would see in Jean, I can’t fathom why she would take the risk of sleeping with him given their limited interactions and the stigma of unwed pregnancy.