Daniil and Vanya

By Marie-Helene Larochelle
Translated by Michelle Winters

Daniil and Vanya
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We Need to Talk About Kevin meets Goodnight Mommy in this outrageous modern family thriller.

Emma and Gregory have a perfect life—a gorgeous home, a successful design firm—except for their inability to start a family. Following a traumatic failed pregnancy, they decide to ... Read more


Overview

We Need to Talk About Kevin meets Goodnight Mommy in this outrageous modern family thriller.

Emma and Gregory have a perfect life—a gorgeous home, a successful design firm—except for their inability to start a family. Following a traumatic failed pregnancy, they decide to travel to Russia to adopt a pair of twin boys. From the moment they board the plane in St. Petersburg, the twins begin to demonstrate perverse behaviour that grows increasingly ominous, driving a wedge between Emma and Gregory, and alienating their friends and family. The two brothers show worrying signs of lack of empathy, and seem to leave behind a trail of disturbing incidents, and rumours persist as the boys grow into teenagers—even as Emma continues to cling to her dream of the perfect family. A dark, violent, and tense novel, Daniil and Vanya shows the bond between parent and child gone horribly awry.

A Book of the Year, Quill & Quire

"Sinister and awe-inspiringly good. "Chatelaine

"Readers will find themselves unable to look away. "Quill & Quire

Marie-Helene Larochelle

Marie-Hélène Larochelle is Associate Professor at York University. Her research is about violence in contemporary French literature. She is the author of two scholarly books, L’abécédaire des monstres. Fragments de Réjean Ducharme (PUL, 2011) winner of Prix de l'Essai 2012. Société des Écrivains francophones d'Amérique, and Poétique de l’invective romanesque, L’invectif chez Louis-Ferdinand Céline et Réjean Ducharme (XYZ, 2008), finalist for Prix Raymond-Klibansky 2010. She is also the author of collective scholarly publications including Le Dire-monstre (Tangence, 2009), Identités monstrueuses : violences et invectives dans le roman francophone européen (Présence francophone, 2010), and Monstres et monstrueux littéraires (PUL, 2008). Daniiel et Vanya is her first novel, and her second novel, Cyan, will be published in 2020. She lives in Toronto.

Michelle Winters

Michelle Winters is a writer, painter, and translator from Saint John, N.B., living in Toronto. Her written and visual work stretches the limits of the probable, explores the lushness of the industrial, and anthropomorphizes with gay abandon. Her stories have been published in THIS Magazine, Taddle Creek, Dragnet, and Matrix, and she was nominated for the 2011Journey Prize. I Am a Truck is her debut novel.

Excerpt

Part One

Gisele laid out the evaluation folder next to the cup of tea I made her and took out the first of the forms.

“It says here you have a cat,” she began, checking a box.

Jules rubbed himself around her ankles, purring. He was a beautiful cat, surprisingly affectionate for a Siamese, and adored by all who met him.

“What will you do if the child is allergic?”

“Oh! We’d get rid of him, of course,” I jumped in.

Gregory shot me a brutal look. He opened his mouth, but said nothing.

“So you’d abandon the cat,” Gisele said.

I realized there was no good answer and had to backpedal a little. “Well, I mean we’d find him another family, of course. Everybody loves Jules! Us most of all!”

I saw Gregory briefly close his eyes and run a hand slowly down his beard in a gesture of restraint. It was his cat, in all honesty, but I’ve always taken good care of him. I got up to add some water to the teapot. I wore slippers and set my feet down delicately to slow my steps. I took the time to listen to the water boil, my hands flat on the counter’s cold granite.

Giselle and Gregory didn’t speak as they waited for me to return. I poured the hot water on the leaves and watched the tannins gradually disperse. The trip to the kitchen and back gave me time to calm down a little. I’d been agonizing over this home psychosocial evaluation for days. We had already met with Giselle at the agency. She had presented us the adoption country options, the documents to complete, timelines, costs. The first meetings were very technical.

I worried today might not go as smoothly.

She’d never been especially friendly and was no more so in our home. As soon as I sat down, she explained to us that the interview would be carried out in two parts: first she would ask about our motivation to adopt and personal history, then she would conduct a home inspection. She had mentioned it when we set up the appointment and we were well prepared. We had, however, neglected to discuss the cat.

“So your marriage is solid, then? You’re not trying to mend a crumbling relationship by adopting a child? Once the child arrives, will you change jobs? How does your family feel about the adoption? Your friends?”

Giselle wore a too-tight flowered top and black polyester pants that were developing pills. Jules rubbed persistently against her legs, covering her already lint-covered pants in blond fur. As she rhymed off questions, I stared at her blouse; it hung open at the neck, not quite revealing her brassiere, which I bet was beige. Gregory quickly stepped in to answer this time. With his elbows resting on his knees, he told her about his brother and his four children, his parents and mine, not mentioning that we didn’t get along with any of them.

“Your last name, is that Polish?”

“Dominik. Yes, my father’s grandparents immigrated to Quebec in the 1850s. ”

Gregory made a point of not telling her that he’d never set foot in Poland and instead reminded her that we’d left everything behind to merge our company with a friend’s and were now firmly established in Toronto.

“We’ve created some work contracts at the firm that are very favourable for young families. We have an employee on maternity leave right now. Emma will be able to take advantage of the best work conditions,” he joked, winking at me.

Giselle took notes without interrupting Gregory, watching my reaction.

“What’s your reason for choosing international adoption?” She turned briskly toward me.

My voice started to quaver. I explained that I’d had a pregnancy medically terminated at twenty-eight weeks and the doctor advised against becoming pregnant again. It was almost true. I held her gaze for a moment as I listed the medical details. They had detected spina bifida in the fetus, I was supposed to have an abortion, but since the pregnancy was advanced, I gave birth to the baby, stillborn. A little boy.

In my cup, the tea leaves floated toward the surface before sinking to the bottom. The fine porcelain burned in my hands. Gregory broke the encroaching silence by talking about our beliefs, worldview, and social ethics. “There are so many children in need, and we have so much to offer!”

“Do you think of this as a humanitarian gesture to save a child, a charitable act to help an underdeveloped country?” she interrupted.

“Oh, we’re like any other parents; we just want a baby. ”

His blue eyes landed knowingly on Giselle. She held back a smile. I shifted focus by saying that we had been together for close to ten years, that we had met in university, and that we’d always wanted children. Recounting it brought me back to Côte de la Fabrique, in Quebec. With our backs against the grey stone of the School of Architecture, smoking cigarettes, we had declared all our desires. Neither of us had really smoked, but we’d used it as an excuse to meet up between classes. We were so young. We’d had the same will to excel, and had fallen in love with each other’s ambition. As I spoke, I slipped a hand up the sleeve of my sweater, revealing my forearm. Gregory’s expression suddenly changed and his lips tightened. I quickly covered back up.

It was hard to tell whether Giselle had noticed the exchange, as she was still taking notes. I crossed my legs and let my attention pass to the window behind her. Children were coming home from school, walking loudly down the snowy sidewalk. Their woollen hats bounced with their laughter. The snow melted beneath their steps into slushy mud.

“We live right by the elementary school, which will be a big help. ”

I had taken the time to think. Giselle approved with a subtle nod of her head and Gregory relaxed. She closed the first file folder, and then pushed back her plastic glasses, which had slid down her nose, and opened a second, thinner, folder. I could see rudimentary floor plans designed to be filled in.

We stood up calmly, imitating her movements.

“So you’ve seen the downstairs. Nothing to hide here, since everything is out in the open, as you can see,” Gregory joked.

We lived in a traditional Edwardian house, but we had knocked down all the walls to make it feel more spacious. From the front door, you could see straight to the back wall of the kitchen. A central island separated it from the dining room. Nothing defined the boundaries of the living room except an Acapulco chair and a hide rug.

“You have a gas stove. ”

We were ready for this one.

“Yes, but look, we have the safety shield to block the knobs,” I said proudly, pulling a long piece of metal out of the drawer.

“All right. ”

We led her upstairs and walked her from room to room, pointing out each of our creations.

“The shower is glass,” she said, sliding the door.

“It’s bulletproof, best you can get. Practically unbreakable. We recommend this one for families,” Gregory assured her in his professional voice.

“The baby will get to use the bathtub first,” I added.

“I’ve never seen a square bathtub before,” Giselle said, visibly impressed.

“The upstairs was divided into four bedrooms when we bought the house, but we combined two of them last year to get some more space in the bathroom. Emma likes to get dolled up. ”

Gregory thought he was funny, and Giselle seemed to as well. She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, stealing a look at herself in the mirror. I gestured for her to go first as we left the bathroom.

We had moved nearly everything out of my office to show how accommodating it was for more than one child. My drawing table sat forlornly in the big white room. Jules stood in the middle of the floor in a sunbeam. He let Giselle walk right around him without moving a whisker. She circled the room, looking at the bare floor and walls. She had taken her boots off when she arrived and was wearing thin nylon socks that revealed bright red polish on her toes.

As she walked into our bedroom, she stopped, mesmerized. Our clothes faced each other in an enormous walk-in closet that took up the entire back wall of our room.

“Emma designed it,” said Gregory. He paused. Giselle’s mouth hung open.

“Magnificent balance of wood and glass, isn’t it? We’ve reproduced this dozens of times for our clients. ”

Giselle walked out of the room without taking any notes and distractedly adjusted her bangs. The upstairs tour ended in Gregory’s office.

“What’s that?” she said, pointing to the bookshelf with a distasteful look.

“Oh, uh, it’s a mould of my teeth,” said Gregory.

He’d had a mouthguard made last summer to whiten his teeth. When the dentist gave him the yellow plaster cast, we laughed about how hideous it was and Gregory decided to put it on display. His teeth were perfectly aligned, and were all the same size, even the canines. But the mould also contained the gums and ended in a flattened fleshy lump that made the teeth look especially morbid in a way that we found very funny. Giselle was not amused. She tilted her head, still contemplating the horrifying knick-knack.

“You can get a good view of the backyard from this window. Come see,” I said, guiding her there with a hand on her shoulder. “I have some lovely rose bushes on the brick wall in the summer. That one’s a cherry tree and the little one is a fig tree. ”

“You manage to grow figs in the city?” she said. “How?”

I launched into a long explanation of bush pruning methods, leading her down the stairs to the first floor and to the patio doors that opened onto the garden.

“It’s too cold to go out, but as you can see we have an exceptionally large yard for Toronto. It’s more than a hundred square metres. That’s what convinced us to buy this house. ”

She didn’t seem particularly impressed. She must have been from the suburbs.

“There’s also the screening room in the basement,” I said.

Giselle went down, holding onto the handrail. Jules snaked past her.

The basement was vast and empty. Gregory used a remote control to lower the projector screen.

Giselle took a few notes, eyebrows raised. “What’s behind this door?” she asked.

“Over here is the laundry room and over there is another bathroom. Gregory’s studio is at the very back. ”

She wanted to see everything, opening every cupboard. The cleaning products were all out of reach and the studio was protected by a latch set high on the door. Her interest started to wane. She stifled a yawn as she retraced her steps.

I politely helped her with her coat, following the movement of her shoulders. She pulled on her fake fur boots and promised she would contact us during the week to follow up.

She shook my hand limply and I closed the door. A gust of wind blew into the house as Giselle left. Still holding the doorknob, I turned and sighed at Gregory, sprawled on the couch. The house was calm again, and dusk was falling, casting a shadow like a blanket. I absently twisted my wedding ring on my finger, thinking back on the answers I’d given. Better replies were coming to me now that it was too late.

Gregory still said nothing, but patted his thighs to attract Jules as he crossed the living room.

“Honestly, you’d get rid of him just like that?”

But Giselle didn’t get back to us during the week, like she’d said she would. I was sure we’d failed the interview. When she called me directly at the office three weeks later, I expected to have my worst fears confirmed.

“Emma, I have very good news,” she said. “We’ve found an adoption candidate. ”

A hot wave spread through my stomach.

“In fact,” she continued after a pause, “we’ve found two! Emma, a Saint Petersburg orphanage has a set of twins up for international adoption. They just confirmed it today. ”

I couldn’t believe it. We’d done it. We were going to be parents. And it was Russia. The agency also had connections in China and South Africa, but we’d stated our preference. We were going to have everything we wanted. And twins! I started to shake. I caught my breath and dialed Gregory’s number, even though his office was just on the other side of the wall.

When he opened the door a few seconds later, the glass door sprang on its hinges. I stood up suddenly, too fast, and my eyes went blurry; I had to steady myself on my drawing table to get my balance.

“Two babies. Do you know how lucky we are? Twins! Twins!” That’s all I could say.

Gregory was also caught up in the details. “Are they identical?” he asked.

“I didn’t know; she didn’t say. ”

“What do we have to do now?” asked Gregory quickly, seized by doubt.

“We have to go sign the papers, tonight if possible. ”

“Let’s go—right now!”

We left the office that minute. Our family name was spelled out in capital letters on the door that closed behind us.

Giselle passed me the photo of the boys with a measured hand. The black-and-white portraits were taken head-on. A number had been hand-written on the bottom border. The lighting was strange; their faces were overexposed compared with the completely black background, giving their features a reform-school look. I turned the images lovingly toward Gregory.

“They’re magnificent. ”

They had thin faces with fleshy mouths, and their shaved hair was very blond. They didn’t smile, focusing sternly on the camera. An uncanny resemblance united them. It was like I was touching them for the first time. I caressed the glossy paper with my fingertips.

“My babies…”

My shoulders started to shake. Could it possibly work this time? I started to sob and Gregory took me in his arms. With my nose in his shirt, I calmed down, just breathing him in. The fabric was soft and warm, and underneath it, his chest beat forcefully. I was going to be a mother.

Giselle resumed her explanation. “They’re fifteen months. They’ve just arrived at the orphanage. You’re first on the list, but you have to move fast. ”

She paused. I got the feeling she wasn’t finished.

“There are still a number of papers to sign, and you’ll need a visa to enter the country, but we’ll expect you to be in Russia before the weekend. ”

It was happening so fast. I thought of work, of maternity leave, of the clients we’d have to notify at the last minute, of the upheaval this would create at the office, of packing, of the house that wasn’t ready.

“The circumstances of this adoption are unique,” Giselle stressed. We couldn’t go as a group, like it was usually done. We had to go alone. The timelines were too tight. The agency couldn’t even free up a staff member to accompany us. “Will you be able to manage?” she asked.

We were ready to make every promise, to agree to everything required. We signed the papers hastily, already in a celebratory mood.

Reviews

"The sense of dread and horror is physically palpable, and the careful stagecraft of the writing. .. is precisely calibrated. Readers will find themselves unable to look away. .. the book is a remarkable achievement. "Quill & Quire, starred review

"Not quite a horror nor a thriller, Daniil and Vanya is subtle in its uneasy sordidness… its disturbing nature is gripping, and will keep you hooked. "Maisonneuve

"An unflinching psychological horror story, both sinister and awe-inspiringly good. "Chatelaine

"I am in awe of this book, of its power to agitate and affect me so deeply, it’s been over two weeks since I finished it, but I can’t forget about it. "—Anne Logan, I've Read This

“Marie-Hélène Larochelle’s story about a perfect-on-paper couple who adopt Russian twins is its own unique nightmare. In Michelle Winters’s translation, Larochelle’s unadorned language reads like a lengthy confession, or perhaps a defence, building suspense to its inevitable conclusion. As author Casey Plett wrote in her starred Q&Q review, “The tensions of the book play on how—not if—it’s all going to hell. ”—Books of the Year, Quill & Quire

"Daniil and Vanya has none of the gentleness for which Canadian literature is sometimes known. It’s savage, direct, and shocking. Marie-Hélène Larochelle’s academic work focuses on violence and vulgarity in French literature, which she explores in this novel without the filter of Canadian politeness. The book goes in swinging and doesn’t stop until it’s gripped you with its haunting brutality to where you can’t look away. "—note from the translator Michelle Winters, Scotiabank Giller Prize-nominated author of I Am a Truck

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