Boxes by Pascal Garnier

Quirky and unsettling…

😀 😀 😀 😀

boxesBrice Casadamont has packed his life in boxes to move from Lyon into the country. This wasn’t his idea – he agreed to the move to please his wife, Emma. But now Emma is missing, though Brice keeps hoping each day that she will come back. It’s only gradually that the reader finds out what’s behind Emma’s disappearance. So here he is, on his own, in an empty house with all his belongings in boxes in the garage and without the motivation to unpack, since he knows Emma will want to decide where everything should go when she comes back.

This novella-length story is the first thing of Pascal Garnier’s that I’ve read. It’s a compelling little portrait of a man in grief and denial, gradually sinking into the lethargy and apathy of depression, and coming close to the edge of insanity. But the bleakness is broken up by many touches of humour, which makes it an enjoyable read despite the subject matter. It’s very well written and the translation, by Melanie Florence, is excellent.

Although all the characters are quirky, almost with a touch of the type of strange villagers in a standard horror story, Garnier makes them just about credible. Brice has deliberately isolated himself from his old friends and can’t bring himself to get to work on the illustrations for a children’s book that he was working on before Emma disappeared. Garnier lets us see just enough of his old life through occasional contacts with other people for us to know that he was probably always a bit of a difficult person, but also that his current behaviour is abnormal even for him. Although the book is in the third person, we only see the other characters as they appear to Brice, so they are deliberately vague, leaving the reader in the unsettling position of not quite knowing how much they are being distorted by his state of mind.

There’s a mild feeling of horror about a lot of the descriptions of nature and the countryside too, as Garnier slips from lyricism to brutality and back in the course of single sentences.

Now and again, down from a bird ripped open by a fox in the night was caught by the breeze, rising and falling like snowflakes on the bushes.

It all adds to the off-kilter, disturbing feeling of the whole thing. And then, when it feels it might be getting a bit dark, Garnier will throw in a bit of perfectly timed observational humour…

A little further on, he passed a young mother holding the hand of a little four- or five-year-old girl who was crying and had a hand up to her forehead.

“That’s the way it is, Laura. Some doors open by themselves and some don’t.”

Learning how the world works can be tough.

Pascal Garnier
Pascal Garnier

As Brice settles into his new home – well, into the garage of his new home – he makes friends with the rather strange Blanche, owner of the big house in the village, whose dead father he coincidentally resembles. Blanche has her own grief and denial thing going on, too, and for a while each seems to be good for the other. But Blanche’s protective friend Élie is worried about their growing closeness, and as the story unfolds and the darkness grows, one feels he has good reason. Brice’s only other friend is the stray cat who comes to live with him, bringing a welcome touch of warmth and normality into his life (and making me dreadfully afraid that something truly horrible was going to happen to the cat…).

I loved about 95% of this and then it all became incredibly silly at the end. Fortunately, since the book is short, that wasn’t enough to spoil my overall enjoyment, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Garnier’s work in the near future. Especially since those in the know, like Margot and MarinaSofia, tell me this isn’t one of his best…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Gallic Books.

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31 thoughts on “Boxes by Pascal Garnier

  1. Oh, goodie, we’ve got another convert, I hope! This blend of darkness and humour is very characteristic of all of Garnier’s work, so I trust you will find more that are even more to your taste.

    • Definitely! Even though the ending of this one was a bit silly, I had enjoyed it so much up to that point it didn’t spoil it for me. I’m looking forward to trying his other stuff now…

  2. So glad you enjoyed your first encounter with Garnier, FictionFan! I really do like his blend of dark stories with wit and odd characters. And he really was good, I think, at letting readers ‘inside the heads’ of his protagonists. I hope you’ll like other work of his that you read.

    • I really did! I had expected the darkness but was surprised by the amount of humour in the book – I always like the bleakness to be broken up a bit to save it all from becoming too grim. I’m really looking forward to trying some of his other stuff now… 🙂

  3. I’ve never read any of Garnier’s works either, but this one has possibility. Of course, the subject matter sounds pretty dismal, and I find myself worrying over that poor cat, but perhaps there are enough redeeming factors to make it palatable. Maybe with a nice bag of chocolates nearby!!

    • *Spoiler alert!!*

      I’ll let you into a little secret. The cat survives – in fact, it probably has the most stress-free existence of any character in the book! And there’s enough humour in it to stop it from being too bleak – nothing there that some nice chocolate wouldn’t get you through quite happily! 😉

  4. I haven’t read this one, but your comments on the ending chime with my reaction to another of Garnier’s novellas, The Front Seat Passenger. The set-up was excellent, but the final twist was just a step too far for me. Overall, it didn’t quite hit the mark. Of the four I’ve read so far, Moon in a Dead Eye is my fave (with How’s the Pain as close second).

    I really like what you say about the disquieting nature of the story in this one – the way it leaves the reader in the position of not quite knowing how much they are being distorted by Brice’s state of mind. That’s very Garnier!

    • I have The A26 to read next, so I’ll be intrigued to see how I get along with that. Yes, the final twist in this one was too much for me and not necessary for the story to work, I felt. But it was only a few paragraphs at the end so I forgave him! I must say I do always like when dark stories have a little bit of humour in them – saves them from becoming too grim.

      Yes, I liked the way he left you not quite knowing how much your impressions of the other characters were being skewed by Brice’s own viewpoint – very discombobulating! 🙂

  5. OK, I was going to fall for this until I read the final bit of your assessment. May look for a different story by this author. But then, this one did sound interesting…..but no, not now!!! Oh, I am soo weak. Too weak. Especially after I gave a mover a tour of our bookshelves today. He said it was a 4-man job. Yikes!

    • Moon in a Dead Eye seems to be getting the majority votes as the best. But they’re only little short novellas! Take practically no time to read and so easy to pack! Haha! Maybe that’s one man to pack them and the other three to read them – a special clear-your-TBR-as-you-move service. If so, please send me their number…

  6. PS – does this mean James has finally been murdered (or not) – am cross with myself that i missed The year of Lear, whilst on offer. I have 1599 and that is very good. Think I will buy this!

    • This is the only thing of his I’ve read, and I reckon it’d be a pretty good starting point – it has been for me anyway! I get the impression everything that’s been translated is novella length – I don’t know if he maybe only wrote shorts or if there will be full-length stuff still to come…

    • I never know whether to say when animals are involved. I know the idea of animal cruelty puts me off, so sometimes a little spoiler works! If you decide to give it a go, I hope you enjoy it. 🙂

  7. I did enjoy this one, and it’s good to know it isn’t his best, the language was what drew me into this the most and that’s quite incredible for a translation – I have the A26 to read next as well as an audio of The Front Seat Passenger to listen to.

    • I have The A26 too – I’m sorry I missed out on the rest when they were on NG now. Yes, the translation can really make all the difference, can’t it? I’m reading another translation at the moment and keep finding myself thrown out of the story by wondering whether the translation can possibly be right…

  8. Good news about the cat and I like that we can trust you to make things clear on those points – very important! Not sure I fancy this, but another interesting review from you!

    • Thanks, Liz! Yes, as someone who is really put off by animals in books even if they don’t get hurt – for fear they might be – I’m always tempted to give a little spoiler on that score. Especially if it’s not crucial to the plot, as it isn’t in this one.

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