Little Beast by Julie Demers is a fairy tale with a twist. Set in 1944, in a small village in rural Quebec which is bordered by a vast mountain and a raging river, live a mother, a father and an eleven-year-old daughter. One day, the daughter begins to develop a full beard, the shock of which drives her mother to depression and sends her father away into the wilderness. The girl is kept locked away from prying eyes, contained like a caged animal, unable to live like a normal child. One day, the other villagers become suspicious and storm the cottage, looking for the bearded girl. When they come for her, she escapes into the winter wilderness – alone, afraid and uncertain of her identity.
Little Beast is a tiny novella at only 148 pages, but it is powerful. The girl’s narrative voice is strong and engaging, and the reader feels both sympathy and alliance with her. The stunning natural setting juxtaposes with the harsh treatment the girl receives from those closest to her, and the villagers she encounters. Unnamed and cast adrift from society, the girl begins to form her own identity as she forges a path through the wilderness, relying on common sense and an affinity with the natural world.
The language used by Demers is poetic yet stark; the girl’s loneliness, isolation and self-hatred are clear, but expressed in lyrical prose that flows like the river through the novella. Brought up in an enclosed environment, surround by rules and imperatives – ‘Be like this, don’t do that’ – and with a mother who is both her protector and persecutor, the girl has been sheltered and distanced from the outside world, yet she is fully aware of her difference, her othering. In a remarkably matter of fact tone, she says; ‘There is something unfair about not being able to choose your face’ – this poignant and thoughtful tone permeates the novel.
To the girl, men are figures of fear – reduced to threatening objects like boots, beards, the musky scent of hunters. On the other hand, women are fully fledged, complex creatures, emotionally rich and vivid. The girl falls somewhere between the two; her beard makes her seem masculine but she is female and identifies as such, a girl becoming a young woman. This exploration of identity, gender norms and appearance in such a young child is powerful; the way she is treated unsettling.
Little Beast is an evocative novella, sharp and engaging. It is dreamlike in quality, the fairy tale elements in contrast to the stark reality lurking at the edges, preventing the reader from being lost in the illusory atmosphere. Perfect for fans of dark, twisted tales, with strong characters and a modern edge.
Little Beast by Julie Demers, transl. by Rhonda Mullins, was published on 22nd May 2018 by Coach House Books. Thank you to Coach House Books and NetGalley for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.