Black Dance is one of those novels that leads with a family tree. Surprisingly, this one features only 14 names, though it covers four generations of Irish Catholic Canadian immigrants. It is the story of Milo Noirlac, a screenwriter dying of HIV/AIDS, whose partner (both professional and personal), film director Paul Schwartz, is at his side attempting to pull Milo's life story into one last screenplay. Ever the practical director, Schwartz tries to rein in Milo's wandering narrative, reminding him that "we can't afford storywise to follow every little branch down to the smallest leaf and twig... bore them stiff with stuff like Last Year at Marienbad." The truncated family tree is Schwartz's work, adhering to "film's guiding principle--always follow one of the three main protagonists."
Milo's memory is dominated by his literary grandfather who fled Ireland for Canada after the rebellion of 1916, leaving his colleagues "Jimmy" Joyce and "Willie" Yeats to become the pillars of Irish literature while he had to accept working on his wife's family's farm in Quebec and simply collecting books. Milo's father was a drunken petty thief, his mother a Waswanipi Cree prostitute. Shuttled among abusive foster parents, Milo finally broke free into the world of the arts. Careering from Montreal to Toronto, New York City and the wild bisexual hedonism of Brazil, he becomes obsessed with Rio's fight-dance capoeira scene.
Fluent in English and French, Nancy Huston was born in Canada, grew up in New Hampshire, studied in New York and now lives in France. She has written most of her novels (including Fault Lines, winner of the Prix Femina) in French and then done the English translations herself. This cosmopolitan background enriches Black Dance with a plethora of languages and cultures that weave through the four generations of Milo's family. With its cinematic structure--jump-cut scenes and earthy dialogue--the novel covers both 100 years of history and one family's personal legacy. But Paul's easygoing narration avoids the maudlin as he mines the memories of his dying lover and accepts that they are just "two old fogies whispering a screenplay at each other through an endless November night... if you take as your starting point that everything is unfathomable, and stick to it, you'll never be disappointed." Huston's touch is light but sure, and Black Dance rarely disappoints.
Bruce Jacobs' review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.