February 20, 2018


Written by Charlotte Gingras
Illustrated by Daniel Sylvestre
Translated by Christelle Morelli and Susan Ouriou
Groundwood Books
264 pp.
Ages 14+
March 2018

Ophelia is what she calls herself, though her peers at high school have affixed the label of "rag girl" on her.  But Ophelia, like Shakespeare's tragic character, is much more than she appears.  She is a complex teen, overridden with fears and anger and anxiety and isolation that goes far beyond the teen angst label many use to underplay overwhelming personal issues.  

Ophelia's story, past and present, is told in letters to an author, Jeanne D'Amour, who visited Ophelia's school and gifted the teen with an ink-blue notebook. The unsent letters reveal Ophelia's crushing worries of abandoned children; of being seen as ugly; of her struggles at school; of being alone or of finding love; of a mother who had been undeclared unfit once, forcing Ophelia into foster care, and could be again; of never knowing her father; and of her sexuality, especially as she harbours trauma from an incident of childhood sexual abuse.  
I don't love anyone for real, Jeanne.  If I dive down, down to my very depths, all I find is dark and hard.  Nothing alive. (pg. 122)
But when Ophelia, a girl who goes out at night and tags walls with oil-pastel broken hearts, discovers an abandoned building with walls on which she might express herself artistically, everything changes.  She soon learns that her workshop had previously been discovered by another marginalized teen, a new student and fat young man who decides to call himself Ulysses.  The two work out a schedule so that they do not have to interact, and Ophelia can continue to work on her art–first an "upside-down girl" as a depiction of her namesake, then an empowered "right-side-up girl" and more–while Ulysses endeavours to dismantle an old van he has named Caboose, hopeful of setting it to rights so he could take it on a long journey. 

Ophelia is still overpowered by her anger and worries but the innocuous Ulysses subtly begins to share his own fears and pains and finds a way to connect with Ophelia.
He'd defused my suicide-bomber belt with his chocolate bars and calming voice. (pg. 86)
Similarly Ophelia's artwork begins to have a positive impact on the two teens, enabling them to become the warriors she creates on the walls.  But can those shifts in Ophelia and Ulysses be sustained and carry them through a violent invasion into their safe space as well as their emerging sexualities?

Ophelia is a powerful book of a teen's struggles, a deep and insightful introspection of her shattering anger and apprehension.  Though Ophelia writes with the chaotic musings of a young person in trauma, alternating recollections of the past, with current struggles and anticipation of the future, there is a lifeline of progression from out-of-control angst to increasing self-reflection and empathy to self-acceptance and empowerment that is so real that it is visceral.
From Ophelia 
by Charlotte Gingras 
illus. by Daniel Sylvestre
I am so pleased that Groundwood Books has brought Ophélie (Courte Echelle, 2008), the original French-language novel from Governor General-award winning author Charlotte Gingras, to English readers through this translation by Christelle Morelli and Susan Ouriou.  Emboldened with the artwork of Montréaler Daniel Sylvestre, readers will catch glimpses of the fury and anxiety of Ophelia in her sketches and tags as they bear witness to her progress.  But it is the voice of Ophelia, heartfelt and agonized, as she verges on implosion and explosion, as well as that of Ulysses struggling with his own issues, that need to be heard and heeded by young readers and those who care for them.  There may not be a happy ending but there is hope for better.

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