😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂
Brother and sister Bernard and Yolande have lived together all their lives. Yolande remains permanently holed up in their house, every door locked, every window covered, her only viewpoint on the world a small hole in one of the blinds. And for Yolande, the world she looks out on is still in the grip of WW2, a period that traumatised her so completely she has never recovered. Bernard has been the functional one, his job on the railway providing their income. He has given up his own chance of a personal life to look after his older sister. But now Bernard has been told that he is dying, and suddenly all the missed opportunities and disappointments of his life erupt into violence…
Given the novella length of this book, it packs a mighty punch. Ink-black noir, there are no gleams of light or humour to lift the tone. On the surface, Bernard and Yolande are a pair of extremely dysfunctional and disturbed siblings, each with their own streak of madness, and with the potential for violence simmering not far below the surface. The book has a thriller format, seen from the perspectives of the perpetrators of the various crimes that take place.
But it seems to me (though I may be over-analysing it) that the entire novella is a metaphor for a France still bleeding from the wounds inflicted on it in WW2 – the wounds of defeat, collaboration and betrayal – wounds that eventual victory may have covered, but with the thinnest of scar tissue, easily scratched away. The book was written in 1999, and is set perhaps a couple of decades before that, when many people were still alive who had lived through the war. And Garnier shows this couple as having been damaged even before the war began, much as France still reeled from the horrors inflicted upon its landscape and people in the First World War.
‘Row upon row, their white tunics stained with blood like that bastard of a butcher. “I kill you, you kill me.” And the more they killed, the more of them sprang up again, it was truly miraculous! That’s why there’ll never be an end to the war – anyway, it’s always been here, it’s that kind of country, there’s nothing else to do but go to war. The only thing that grows is white crosses.’
Yolande had committed the crime of having an affair with a German soldier and had paid the price when her countrymen shaved her head to display her disgrace to the world. But Garnier’s description shows that this episode was as much to do with lust and cruelty as justice and patriotism. The world may have forgotten Yolande’s shame but she has never forgotten those who shamed her. There is the chance for Yolande to throw the past aside and go back out into the world, but she carries her prison with her in her mind. She’s not a weak woman, far from it. Her selfishness makes her monstrous and it’s hard to see her as having been a victim. She is a fact, a piece of history, a hidden scandal, France’s shame. And that unresolved shame is shown metaphorically to be still shuddering through the later generations.
Bernard has watched the woman he loved marry another man – a cruel, boorish man who treats her badly, and when he receives his death sentence his pent-up frustrations and anger boil over into a murderous spree. There are some shocking scenes of violence and horror, but they’re not written in an overly graphic way – Garnier is painting impressionistic images rather than drawing detailed pictures. His descriptions are full of craters and mud, and when he describes places he does it in terms of their association with battles and war, this modern landscape scarred still with reminders of France’s violent past. The A26, being built in the book, runs through or past many of the great battlefields of France and close to those of Belgium – Arras, the Somme, Ypres – and Garnier plays darkly with the conjunction of the digging of the road and the history of its bloody surroundings.
To say I enjoyed this would be a total misuse of the word. It is too dark, too upsetting, to enjoy. But it is powerful and gut-wrenching, with Garnier’s compelling writing enhanced by an excellent translation from Melanie Florence. I may have made it sound more metaphorical than it is, though that’s how it struck me. But it works too on the level of being an extremely dark thriller, leading up to an ending that shocked me and left me feeling completely conflicted as to the morality of the tale. Despite the awfulness of their actions, there was some part of me that empathised with each of the dreadful siblings, and that was the most unsettling aspect of all. As entertainment, I enjoyed Garnier’s Boxes more, but for me this one is the more powerful and meaningful, and therefore better, of the two.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Gallic Books.