Julie Demers, Translated by Rhonda Mullins
Coach House Books, 2018
“You’re not a monster,” Mother used to say. “Just a little beast.” In the original French, the title for Little Beast was Barbe: Roman. “Barbe” means “beard” in French. Both of these titles ring true when looking at the story as a whole.
Little Beast follows an unnamed 11-year-old girl who has been hidden behind thick curtains and away from any prying eyes in the village she was born in because of a rather peculiar feature. She has grown a beard.
Fatherless, with only her mother to keep her protected from the outside world, the girl has no choice but to watch the village from the tiny window in her room. She peers behind the blinds and watches the world shift and change in a yearly cycle. The girl is forced to flee her little village, in the middle of winter, to escape the barrage of men in boots who breached her home to find her.
Her struggles in the harsh Quebec winter are interspersed with glimpses of what her life was like in the past, hidden from view and locked away. She faces down fearsome storms, a wildfire, and hunters eager to find a unique score. All the while, the girl grapples with the fear of getting caught, and coming to grips with what true isolation can mean. While she is only 11, she has the voice of someone far older. She struggles through daily trials of survival while constantly pulled into the past.
Set in 1994, the book deals with issues of identity, discrimination, and the fear of being different that many people today would find familiar. Once free from her tiny room, and no longer concerned with her followers, she begins to wonder who she is without these shackles. “When the Boots were looking for me, I was someone; with their violence came recognition.”
Written in a tone similar to a folk tale, Little Beast depicts the forests around the girl’s village as a magical, yet cruel, place. It is filled with many creatures lurking in the dark shadows between the trees, yet is far more ordinary in setting than expected.
Overall, Little Beast’s concept is both unusual and intriguing, but its brevity leaves the reader wanting more, though some aspects of the story may have been lost in translation. The story was fast paced and kept the reader engaged, but the end was less concrete and more rushed than it needed to be.
“But it is dangerous, very dangerous to keep a wild animal in a cage for too long… From the wild animal she was, the creature became a pet. Docile. Accommodating. Should they bring her back to the village?”