Award-winning novel ‘The Dishwasher’ is a dark, nostalgic trip to a past Montreal

Stéphane Larue’s novel, The Dishwasher, begins with an all-too-familiar scene: Montreal in the dead of winter. However, the story that emerges from beyond the snowbanks is anything but ordinary. 

Larue’s novel is a masterful depiction of Montreal in all its dark, eclectic charm at the turn of the new millennium. Pablo Strauss’ recent English translation of Larue’s French text was awarded the Amazon Canada First Novel Award, an annual literary prize presented since 1976 to honour exceptional works of fiction by first-time Canadian novelists. When The Dishwasher was first published in 2016 under its French title Le plongeur, it was an instant success among Quebec audiences. 

Equally nostalgic as it is tragic, Larue tells the story of an unnamed narrator plagued by a gambling addiction and caught in a downward spiral of lies and debt—that is, until he finds himself employed as a dishwasher in the fictional and classy La Trattoria restaurant. The story that unfolds is one of both communal and personal triumph, as the narrator adapts to the demands of his new life in the restaurant industry and, with the help of his new coworkers, attempts to overcome the demons of his past. 

Rife with autobiographical elements, Larue, who grew up in the suburbs of Montreal, was determined to tell not only the story of his personal struggles as a young adult, but also the stories of those who supported him. 

“In The Dishwasher, I chose to picture Montreal as I had discovered it in my early adult years,” Larue said in an interview with The McGill Tribune. “That very Montreal, as it was in the early 2000s, doesn’t exist anymore [….] I wanted to pay a tribute to that city I lived in for so many years.” 

Though Larue’s novel pays homage to the city he grew up in, The Dishwasher was not the book he initially intended on writing. 

“I was originally writing a science fiction novel when I got started,” Larue said. “It was only after I started writing [the novel that it became] something closer to me. My influences are mixed with storytelling, tradition, noir novels, science fiction novels, and stream of consciousness novels as well. I come from that kind of mixed tradition between French novels and the Anglo-Saxon storytelling tradition.”

In this sense, The Dishwasher parallels the evolving history of Montreal, a city that has been forced to constantly grapple with its dual French and English influences. 

In winning the First Novel Award, Larue joins the ranks of other acclaimed Canadian authors including Michael Ondaatje, Anne Michaels, and Madeleine Thien, who achieved the same success early on in their careers.

“When you step into an arena with other big players, big achievers, it is always a weird feeling of, ‘okay, I am in the real thing now,’” Larue said. “It gives a sense of being welcomed into the land of the giants. I am still overwhelmed.” 

Larue’s win marks the first time in the 44-year history of the Amazon First Novel Award that a translated book has won. The Dishwasher has also become the first translated novel to ever be awarded a major Canadian literary prize.

Larue remarked that The Dishwasher’s recognition means more to him than just seeing his name elevated to celebrity status. 

“The [monetary value] of the award is pretty substantial, which gives me more time to concentrate on writing,” Larue said. “I write, but I also have my own bar at which I bartend, so maybe I’ll be able to take fewer shifts and give more time toward writing.” 

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