The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau by Graeme Macrae Burnet

Opposite and equal…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is the story of two men, residents of the drab little town of St Louis on the French side of the Swiss border. One, Georges Gorski, is a police inspector; the other, Manfred Baumann, is a loner who frequents the bar of the Restaurant de la Cloche – the restaurant where Adèle Bedeau worked before she disappeared. There is no real reason to assume that Baumann had anything to do with her disappearance, except for his strange behaviour and the lies that he tells. But is this a sign of guilt, or simply a symptom of his general social ineptitude? Gorski doesn’t even know whether there is anything to be guilty about – in the absence of a corpse or anything to indicate violence, it’s impossible to know if Adèle’s disappearance is a sign of a crime at all. But many years ago, as a rookie detective, Gorski failed to bring the murderer of another young girl to justice and this haunts him, so he is determined this time to ensure that the killer of Adèle (if she has been killed) will not escape.

This compelling book falls very definitely on the literary side of crime fiction while never feeling pretentious or overdone. The central mystery of Adèle’s disappearance is intriguing but is almost peripheral – the real meat of the story is in the slow reveal of the characters of the two men, detective and suspect: both brought up in this rather dead-end, grey town, both outwardly successful in their careers but both inwardly feeling that somehow they haven’t achieved their early ambitions, both haunted for different reasons by an event from many years earlier. The careful depiction of the town is so authentic that it feels as if it must exist and that the Restaurant de la Cloche is a real place where the regulars are real people who really gather each night to bicker over the news of the day.

There is a strange device employed whereby the book is credited to one Raymond Brunet, translated into English by Graeme Macrae Burnet. Because of Burnet’s success as an author, especially with his Booker-nominated His Bloody Project, a reader coming to it now realises this is an obvious fiction, although it is presented quite credibly and if I hadn’t heard of the author before I may well have fallen for it, not noticing the similarity in the names. (Having done my usual thing of reading the second book in this duology first – The Accident on the A35 – I knew going in how this aspect would be developed in the next book, but wondered what I’d have made of it if I’d read this one first. It may have struck me as an unnecessary and slightly pretentious device, so I do think it’s important to see these books as halves of a whole, although storywise each stands on its own as complete.)

Brunet, Burnet and Inspector Gorski all admit to the influence of Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels, the first two as writers and Gorski as having been inspired to become a detective by reading the books. I’ve read a few Maigret books but am not really well enough acquainted with his work to judge how well Burnet catches the tone, so I defer to better read reviewers who seem to feel he’s done it very well. The mood is noir, but as I said in my review of the other book, the drabness of St Louis makes it a faded noir – grey rather than black.

The writing is wonderful, both in the physical descriptions and in the depth of characterisation. Told in the third person we are nevertheless allowed deep inside the minds of the two men, and both are interesting. Despite a failing marriage and a stalled career, Gorski is basically a contented man who feels he has found his level. It may not be the level he once hoped he would reach and he may still harbour dreams that one day he’ll do something to impress people, but he’s comfortable in his own skin. The same is not true of Baumann. An outsider all his life, he thinks obsessively about how other people see him and as he feels suspicion surrounding him becomes almost paranoic, thinking that he’s being watched not just by the police but by the people of the town. He may be right – we see this through his eyes so we have only his impressions to go on. As the book progresses we learn more about the experiences that have formed Baumann, and I found myself having a great deal of sympathy for him while simultaneously finding him repellent. Truly an excellent creation – believable as the kind of man any of us may know and yet ultimately unknowable, even to himself.

Graeme Macrae Burnet

Adèle disappears not just from St Louis but from the book. She is never developed as a character, deliberately, her only importance existing in her absence. Her mystery exists mostly in her blankness – one feels that if she had never disappeared, she would never have been noticed at all. There seem to be no grief-stricken relatives and her job at the restaurant is soon filled. Even her boyfriend barely knew her. And Gorski, though he tries not to admit it, is somewhat hopeful that she has indeed been killed, giving him the opportunity to make his mark and make things right with his conscience by finally solving a murder.

I’d be hard put to choose between the books in the duo – both are excellent individually and together they become something really quite special and, in my opinion, unique in crime writing. I recommend them both highly and hope that Burnet will continue to blur the boundaries of literary and genre fiction in his future work.

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Paris Echo by Sebastian Faulks

Hidden histories…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Two strangers in Paris for very different reasons meet, and through them the reader is taken to two important parts of France’s past – the Nazi occupation of France and France’s own colonial occupation of Algeria. Hannah is a post-doctoral student, in Paris to research a chapter for a book on women’s experiences during the Nazi occupation. Tariq is a 19-year-old from Morocco, who has left his comfortable home to try to find out more about his mother, a Frenchwoman who died when he was an infant.

I have very mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I knew very little about either of the parts of history Faulks discusses, and found them interesting and well written, with a feeling of having been well researched. On the other hand, the whole framing device of Hannah and Tariq and their experiences is completely unconvincing – so much so that I had to jump over an almost insurmountable credibility barrier before the book had got properly underway.

I’ll get my criticisms out of the way first, then. Hannah has just arrived in Paris, on her own, when she comes across a homeless girl in the street, a complete stranger, who appears to be ill. So she takes her back to her flat, looks after her, leaves her there while she goes out to work and doesn’t mind when the girl moves a friend in – Tariq. Well, that’s all lovely, and nobody robs her or trashes the place and Tariq becomes the perfect lodger. But. Seriously? It simply would never happen, unless Hannah was nuts and we’re not led to believe that she is. Nor did I feel that a young man in Paris for the first adventure of his life would want to spend his time living with a thirty-something landlady.

The other thing that jarred was Faulks attempt to bring a kind of ghostly vibe into the story, as each becomes consumed by the history they are researching. I could have accepted it if there were only one of them – one could have put it down to overwork, stress, over-active imagination, etc. But both beginning to see and hear people and events from the past? Partly my problem with this was that it reminded me a little of how Hari Kunzru brought the past into the present supernaturally in White Tears, and that comparison worked to Faulks’ disadvantage, since Kunzru did it so much more effectively.

Outside the Moulin Rouge in 1941.

But once Faulks begins to let us hear the stories of the women during the Occupation, his storytelling rests on much firmer grounds. He does this by having Hannah listen to tapes made as a kind of living history project, when the women were elderly and looking back at their experiences. I found these stories compelling and often moving, and they carried me through my problems with the framing story. He is making the point that this is a period which France prefers not to examine too closely and tends to somewhat distort by suggesting that most people were either actively or passively resisting the Germans. Faulks suggests that in fact most people were willing to go along with whoever looked like they’d be the winner – their over-riding desire was to not have the same massive loss of life as in WW1 and they didn’t think much more deeply than that. It was only after the tide of war turned against Germany that women were vilified for associating with the German soldiers – Faulks suggests that before that it was commonplace and most people weren’t overly concerned about it.

The other side of the historical aspect – France’s troubled relationship with Algeria – isn’t done quite so well, with an awful lot of info-dumping. However, since I didn’t know a lot of the info I still found it interesting reading. Faulks is obviously comparing the two episodes as opposite sides of occupation, but I felt that was a little simplistic. More interesting was the comparison of how both events are downplayed in France – a hidden past that, Faulks seems to be suggesting, must come fully into the light before France can reconcile itself with its own history and properly understand its present.

Sebastian Faulks

I rather wish that, instead of having the present day framing and the double history, Faulks had simply taken us back to the days of the Occupation and told a straightforward story of the women caught up in events. Somehow, the art of plain storytelling seems to be considered old-fashioned at the moment, and books become unnecessarily complex as a result, laying themselves open, as this one does, to having parts that work and parts that don’t. My advice to all authors is – find an interesting story, tell it, then stop. Within that simple framework, all things are possible, from Frankenstein to The Lord of the Rings, from Pride and Prejudice to The Great Gatsby, from The War of the Worlds to War and Peace.

Overall, the good outweighed the less good for me with this one, but I feel it could have been excellent had it been more simply told. Nevertheless, recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Cornerstone.

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The Accident on the A35 by Graeme Macrae Burnet

When the ordinary becomes extraordinary…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Bertrand Barthelme runs his car off the A35 into a tree one evening and dies, Inspector Georges Gorski has no reason to think it was anything other than an unfortunate accident. But Barthelme’s widow thinks there’s something odd about her husband having been at that spot at that time and asks Gorski to look into it a bit more. Mme Barthelme is an attractive 40-something with more than a touch of the femme fatale in this first meeting, so Gorski finds himself agreeing. Meantime, Barthelme’s 17-year-old son Raymond starts a kind of investigation of his own, in an attempt to learn more about the father with whom he had always had a rather cold, distant relationship. Both investigations will head off in unexpected directions.

This is on the face of it a crime novel, but the quality of the writing, the depth of the characterisation, the creation of place and time and the intelligence of the game the author plays with the reader all raise it so that it sits easily into the literary fiction category, in my opinion at the highest level.

There is an introduction and an afterword, and it’s essential to read them both. The book is presented as a manuscript come to light years after the author’s death, and translated by Burnet from the original French. This device is crucial in getting the full impact of what follows, but I’ll go no further than that since the journey is best taken without a roadmap. This is actually the second book featuring Inspector Gorski. I haven’t read the first one, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau, but didn’t find that presented a problem – this one works entirely as a standalone.

The setting is the small town of Saint-Louis, in the corner of France that borders Germany and Switzerland, some time in the 1970s. A drab and dreary little town from the author’s account of it, a respectable backwater. It is brilliantly drawn – I could see the streets and the little run-down cafés and bars, where people have their regular tables and drink their regular drinks each day. I could smell the Gitanes, feel the rain, visualise each person, their class and social standing indicated with subtlety and authenticity. No wonder Raymond thought the next town along the road, Mulhouse, was an exciting metropolis in comparison, with its shops and cinemas and life!

Both towns are important characters in the book but it’s the human characters who make it such an absorbing story. Gorski is a middle-aged man in something of a rut, but without the ambition or desire to find his way out. He is content to be the Chief of Police in Saint-Louis – a medium-size fish in a tiny pool – even if he’s not particularly liked by his subordinates nor respected by those at the top of the social heap. He’s less happy with the fact that his wife has just left him – he’s not altogether sure why and he’s not convinced that he wants to change whatever it is about himself that’s led her to go. He’s a decent man, but rather passively so – neither hero nor villain. It’s the skill of the writing that makes this ordinary man into an extraordinary character.

Raymond is on the cusp of adulthood and, faced with the sudden death of a father with whom his relationship has never been close, is unsure how to react. Burnet does a wonderful job of showing how hard it can be for a young person to know how to deal with these great crises that life throws at us. Raymond struggles to conform to other people’s expectations of how he should behave and seems at first rather unaffected by his father’s death. But as he gets sucked into trying to discover more about Bertrand’s life, Burnet quietly lets us see how grief is there, deep within him, perhaps so deep he can’t make himself fully aware of it – grief either for the father he has lost, or perhaps for the father that he felt he’d never really had. But at that time of life grief is rarely all-consuming – Raymond’s quest leads him into new experiences and new desires, and as he discovers more about his father, so he discovers more about himself.

Graeme Macrae Burnet

All the other characters we meet along the way are just as well-drawn, building up a complete picture of the two neighbouring societies at the heart of the story. Despite the relative brevity of the book, the secondary characters are allowed to develop over time, making them feel rounded and true. Short sketches of people who appear only for moments in a café or on the street all add to the understanding of the culture, which in turn adds to our understanding of how it has formed and shaped our main characters, Raymond and Gorski. Not a word is wasted – with the briefest of descriptions, Burnet can create a person who feels real, solid, entire, as if they might be a neighbour we’ve known all our life.

For me the place and people are what makes this book so special, but there’s an excellent plot at the heart of it too. There are definite undertones of Simenon’s Maigret in the writing, a debt Burnet acknowledges, and lots of references to the greats of French literature. There’s also a noir feel to it, though in line with the town this noir is greyish rather than black. As Raymond and Gorski each come to the end of their separate quests, I found it fully satisfying as both a story and a brilliant display of characterisation. And then the afterword made me reassess everything I’d just read…

Not a word of criticism in this review because I can find nothing to criticise. I loved every lean and beautifully placed word of this slim book, and was wholly absorbed from beginning to end. It deserves and gets my highest recommendation – superb!

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

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Maigret Takes a Room by Georges Simenon

Street life…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Following a robbery, the police are staking out a rooming-house where the suspect had been living in the hopes that he will return. But one evening, one of the police officers, Janvier, is shot outside the house. The police think it may have been the robbery suspect, Paulus, who shot him, so it’s even more vital now that they catch him. Maigret is on his own at the moment as his wife is away looking after her sick sister, so he decides to move into the rooming-house to be on the spot should Paulus return.

I enjoyed this one a lot. We know straight away that Janvier is still alive, so the plot isn’t quite as dark as it would have been had he been killed, but we still get to see the emotional impact of the shooting on Janvier’s wife. The rooming-house is run by the charming Mademoiselle Clément, a lady of middle years and twinkling eye, whose somewhat over-the-top personality provides a lot of fun and humour. As always, Simenon creates an authentic feel of Paris, and the rooming-house setting allows for there to be several characters, each with their own story. Maigret is at something of a loss without his wife though part of him is rather enjoying the adventure of living in the rooming-house, and he doesn’t seem averse to a little mild flirting with his landlady. He gradually chats to most of the people in the street, the shop and café owners as well as the neighbours, and while Maigret is gathering together clues that will lead to the solution, Simenon is building up an affectionate picture of life in one of the less fashionable streets of Paris.

Georges Simenon

I listened to the Audible version, narrated by Gareth Armstrong. He speaks more quickly than most narrators and I rather liked that and felt it suited the tone of the book – kept it going at a rattling pace. He gives different voices to the various characters, using English accents throughout and suiting them well to the class and position in society each holds. I prefer the use of English accents when “foreign” characters are supposed to be speaking in their own language – it sounds more natural than having the characters speak English in a faux foreign accent. His portrayal of Mlle Clément is a little caricatured, which works for her character and adds to the lightness in tone of the book. All-in-all, I think it’s an excellent narration.

The solution is more complex than it seems as if it’s going to be, and Maigret gets there by a nifty little piece of detective work. And the story behind the crime gives us a glimpse into darkness, so that in the end the tone is nicely balanced. The translation is by Shaun Whiteside, which means that it’s smooth and flawless. Most enjoyable – I’m looking forward to reading more of Maigret’s adventures, or listening to them.

NB This book was provided for review by Audible via MidasPR.

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Maigret and the Tall Woman (Maigret 38) by Georges Simenon

The mystery of the missing corpse…

😀 😀 😀 😀

maigret-and-the-tall-womanOn a hot summer day in Paris when most people are on holiday, Maigret receives a visit from a tall woman who says he once arrested her. Ernestine tells him she is now married to a well-known safe-breaker, nicknamed Sad Freddie, who has been in and out of prison for years. On his latest job, according to the woman, Freddie discovered the body of a murdered woman in the house he was burgling, and has fled and gone into hiding, fearing he’ll be suspected of killing her. Ernestine wants Maigret to find the real killer so her husband feels safe to come home. The only problem is no murder has been reported…

It’s been many years since I last read a Maigret novel, but the recent Penguin re-issues in new translations have led to a spate of reviews around the blogosphere that piqued my interest in re-visiting him. Also, Inspector Maigret is one of Martin Edwards’ picks for his Top Ten Golden Age Detectives. This is the 38th in the series, so the character is well-established, and Simenon doesn’t spend much time in this one filling in details of his personal life. It works perfectly as a standalone, as I believe most if not all of them do.

Simenon creates an authentic picture of a semi-deserted Paris sweltering in a summer heatwave. Partly due to this, and partly just because he seems to like to drink, Maigret spends an inordinate amount of time popping into cafés for a little glass of wine, or beer, or Pernod – lots and lots of Pernod, in fact. I had to stand back in awe at his sheer capacity – not many men start the day with a glass of white wine before heading off to work, and it must surely be a French thing for the police office to have an account with the nearby café to have regular supplies of Pernod sent round during an investigation. One can’t help but feel Rebus would have been in his element over there…

Maigret's unostentatious little office in Quai des Orfevres, Paris.
Maigret’s unostentatious little office in Quai des Orfèvres, Paris.

However, joking aside, happily none of this constant imbibing leads to Maigret being a drunken detective – if anything, it all sharpens his brain. He is shown as doggedly persistent, worrying away at small clues until by sheer force of will he squeezes their meaning from them. The first thing he has to do in this case is establish that there has actually been a murder, and Ernestine helps by explaining how Freddie selects the houses he burgles. Even with this information, Maigret can find no victim and eventually begins to suspect that Ernestine is lying, or at least mistaken. But then he comes across a small inconsistency in the story of one of the people he has interviewed, and from there on it becomes a matter of breaking his suspect down through some pretty dodgy interviewing techniques – he’s not averse to a bit of mild psychological torture to achieve his ends. The eventual solution is not quite as straightforward as it seems as if it’s going to be, though, and along the way Simenon creates a chilling atmosphere of evil at work, and family dynamics gone horribly wrong.

Georges Simenon, looking not unlike my mental image of Maigret...
Georges Simenon, looking not unlike my mental image of Maigret…

Overall, I found this a thoroughly enjoyable read. It falls somewhere between novella and short novel in length, which again I think is standard for the Maigret series, so perfect to read in one evening. To contrast with the darkness of the crime, Maigret himself is rather laid-back and we get a great feeling of the delightful café culture of Paris. He loves his wife, and they regularly meet up (for drinks!) during the case – Maigret is quite capable of working all night if he has to, and making his men do the same, but he doesn’t let work absorb him to the extent of neglecting his family life. In truth, the detection element relies on little more than guesswork and it all works out a little too easily perhaps, but the story is interesting for all that. It’s well written with some humour to lighten the overall tone, and I found the translation by David Watson excellent. I’ll certainly be keen to read more of the series and happily recommend it to anyone who hasn’t tried Maigret before.

(This novel has been published in previous translations as Maigret and the Burglar’s Wife.)

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin UK.

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The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain

One for lovers of whimsy…

🙂 🙂 🙂

the-presidents-hatDaniel Mercier is eating alone one night in a restaurant when François Mitterrand, President of France, and some friends settle themselves at the next table. Daniel is thrilled to be so close to the great man, and begins to imagine that he’s part of the President’s group. When they leave the restaurant, Daniel notices that Mitterrand has accidentally left his signature hat behind. Succumbing to an overwhelming temptation, Daniel picks it up, crams it on his own head, and scuttles quickly out of the restaurant before Mitterrand notices and comes back for it. The strange thing is that, almost immediately he acquires the hat, Daniel, usually a rather diffident and anxious young man, finds his confidence growing and his bosses appreciating him more. So when he in turn accidentally leaves the hat on a train, he is very upset. But the woman who picks it up suddenly finds the desire and courage to change her own rather unhappy life…

Mitterrand and his hat...
Mitterrand and his hat…

And so the story progresses, with the hat being passed from one person to another. In each case, we learn a bit about their story and then see how the possession of the hat leads them to make fundamental changes for the better in their lives. The book is well-written and quite entertaining, though undoubtedly a little on the twee side for me. The stories vary in their interest level. One that I enjoyed tells of a ‘nose’ – a man who used to have a glowing reputation for creating lovely and highly successful perfumes, but who in recent years seems to have lost the knack. The descriptions of how he finds himself inspired by various smells that he comes across and how he then goes about recreating these is done well, and I enjoyed the idea of him being able to identify the scent each person he met was wearing. Other episodes were less successful for me – like the man who found his entire political outlook on life changing as a result of wearing the hat. Even whimsy must have some basis in reality, and the idea that one shows one’s conversion to socialism by buying up lots of expensive art to hang around one’s home seemed a little odd.

Antoine Laurain
Antoine Laurain

It’s not a book to over-analyse, but… well, when did that ever stop me? 😉 I found it intriguing in an irritating kind of way that all the men in the book were inspired to change either their working or political lives, while the solitary (beautiful, of course) woman’s story is one of breaking off a romantic relationship where she’s being used, and then finding true love with a man who gives her the support she needs. The book was written, I believe, in 2012 – have we really not got beyond these stereotypes? I also didn’t much care for the portrayal of Mitterrand – a man I know almost nothing about, so it’s not that I have a bias. In the book he comes over as rather creepy, misusing his position as President to use the Secret Service for personal rather than political purposes, and lasciviously drooling over a photo of the woman who briefly has his hat. For all I know, this might be an accurate portrayal, but even if it is, it didn’t feel right in a book as frothy and fanciful as this one is.

Still, it is quite readable and lightly enjoyable for the most part, so I’ll stop criticising now. Not one that worked terribly well for me, as you’ll have gathered, but I’m sure will work better for people who are more skilled than I am at immersing themselves fully in a bit of whimsy…

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

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Moon in a Dead Eye by Pascal Garnier

The joys of ageing…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

moon in a dead eyeWhen their city neighbourhood begins to change and all their elderly friends gradually retire to quieter places, or die, Odette and Martial decide it’s time to buy a little retirement home in a gated community. Odette is keen to move, Martial less so. The community is newly built and Odette and Martial are the first couple to move in. Early impressions are hampered by the constant rain while, until more people move in, the swimming pool and clubhouse remain closed. But there is a caretaker, though given his creepiness that’s a bit of a mixed blessing. However, things perk up a bit when another couple and then a single woman move in, and the clubhouse is finally opened complete with a social secretary to provide a bit of fun. Thrown together in this isolated place, all the residents quickly become friends. But then the gypsies arrive…

I’ve had a bit of a mixed journey with Pascal Garnier so far. I enjoyed Boxes, loved The A26, and sadly wasn’t very taken with this one at all. It follows the same kind of format as the others – set up the characters, put them in a slightly odd, isolated situation, then make some terrible things happen to them. The writing is as good as ever, the quirky characterisation is great and there’s the same vein of humour, growing increasingly blacker as the novella progresses. Perhaps I’ve just read them too closely together, but I felt this one was rather like painting by numbers.

The first bit of the book is great. The description of this couple trying to settle into their new lives rings very true. Martial in particular misses the busyness of his old home, where he knew everybody and only had to walk down the street to meet acquaintances. Now he finds it hard to find anything to fill his days. The story of their trip to the beach is a glorious piece of blackly comic writing – the wind at their back as they walk giving them a sensation of energy and vitality, till they have to turn and come back against the same wind whipping away their breath and leaving them shattered and exhausted. It’s a great picture of people trying to come to terms with the fact that ageing is taking its toll on what they’re physically able to do, and nicely satirical about all those pictures of happy, energetic retirees in the sunshine that populate brochures for these kinds of communities.

Unfortunately, when the horrors begin, they simply didn’t ring true for me. The actual events didn’t justify the paranoia and, avoiding spoilers, the character change of the person who does the deed was too sudden and not well enough supported. The whole thing also turned on a plot device that I couldn’t believe in – namely, that if the electricity got cut off the electric gates to the community couldn’t be opened manually. There is also a piece of totally unnecessary and gruesome animal cruelty, which never works for me. And finally, the ending depends on such a hugely unlikely coincidental event that it lost any remaining credibility.

Pascal Garnier
Pascal Garnier

I know many people have loved this as one of Garnier’s best, so I’m certainly willing to assume that the problems I encountered with it are a result of too recent comparison with the others I’ve read. Certainly his writing, aided by an excellent translation by Emily Boyce, is as good as ever and I did enjoy the early part of the novella a good deal. But the plot didn’t work for me this time round, I’m afraid. I have two other novellas of his on my Kindle, but I think I’ll leave a good long gap this time to try to avoid that feeling of sameness that I found with this one. Tricky, when I’m being rather negative, but I do still recommend this – I suspect with these novellas everyone will find they have different favourites, but all the ones I’ve read so far have been well worth the reading, especially if you’re more skilled at suspending disbelief than I am.

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

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The A26 by Pascal Garnier

the a26The wounds of war…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

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.’

Verdun-17

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.

Pascal Garnier
Pascal Garnier

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.

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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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The Rival Queens by Nancy Goldstone

Romping royals…

😀 😀 😀 😀

the rival queensIt’s little wonder that Nancy Goldstone has chosen to use quotes from Machiavelli to head each chapter in her romping history of her rival Queens, Catherine de’ Medici, Queen of France, and her daughter Marguerite de Valois, Queen of Navarre. It was a great time for Queens, though maybe not quite so great for their subjects. Over in England, Elizabeth was working up to the beheading of her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. But the shenanigans of Catherine and Marguerite frankly make the British Royals look tame.

Goldstone sets the scene well by beginning with Marguerite’s wedding to Henry of Navarre, a marriage she didn’t want since she was a devout Catholic and Henry was one of the leaders of the Protestant Huguenots. But Catherine didn’t much care for what her children wanted, on the whole – especially her daughters. From her perspective, they were simply pawns to be pushed around on the dynastic chessboard of Europe. To be fair, that was how she had been treated herself, so hardly surprising that she dealt with her own children’s wishes as cavalierly. But to then massacre the bridegroom’s friends and relatives during the wedding celebrations might have been a little over the top even for Renaissance royalty!

Catherine de Medici by Francois Clouet
Catherine de Medici by Francois Clouet

Goldstone then takes us back to Catherine’s early life as Queen to Henri II of France. Throughout, the tone of this hugely readable history is light. This early section in particular is full of some fairly ribald humour, as we learn of Catherine’s difficulties in becoming pregnant, and the helpful bedroom tips she is offered by Henri’s long-term mistress, Diane de Poitiers. In truth, by page 25 I had tears of laughter streaming down my face and my only regret is that if I were to quote the passages that made me howl so much I’d have to re-rate my blog as ‘explicit content’! Suffice to say, this book has the honour of containing the funniest footnote of all time and my Google search recommendations may never recover…

After this rocky start, Catherine managed to produce ten children (Diane’s advice must have been spectacular!) before Henri’s death left her poised to become regent for her young son Charles IX. After years of playing second fiddle to Diane and being sidelined as Queen, there might be some slight justification for Catherine’s desire to grab power when the chance arose. And she soon proved there was nothing that she wouldn’t consider, including murder and war, to hold onto it. Unfortunate for her that this was the time of the Reformation, meaning that the country was almost constantly either in civil war or in danger of it. The Huguenots were numerically hugely outnumbered in the general population, but had some influential people at their head, while the Catholic Guises were constantly on the prowl, looking for opportunities to gain control over the throne for themselves.

Diane de Poitiers - mistress of Catherine's husband Henri II and provider of spectacular bedroom tips!
Diane de Poitiers – mistress of Catherine’s husband Henri II and provider of spectacular bedroom tips!

Catherine started out willing to conciliate the Huguenots, hence the betrothal of her young daughter to Henry of Navarre. But by the time of the marriage, Catherine’s attitude had changed, not for reasons of religious conviction (of which she had none, it would seem), but mainly to try to get in the good books of Philip of Spain. Having gone through with the marriage and then been horrified by the massacre which followed, Marguerite found herself in an uneasy alignment with the Huguenot husband she didn’t love and the brother, Francis, whom she did, and at odds with her mother and the King. From there on, the story is one of plot and counter-plot, shifting allegiances, betrayals and lots and lots of romping! Unloved by her husband, Marguerite took comfort in a succession of affairs throughout her life, seeming to be fairly indiscriminate on whom she bestowed her favours. In and out of her mother’s favour at different times, always for reasons of politics rather than any kind of familial love, the rivalry was finally resolved only by Catherine’s eventual unlamented death. Marguerite’s husband later ascended to the throne of France, at which point he promptly divorced the childless Marguerite (if only Diane had still been around to advise, eh?). But they got on better after that, and Marguerite ended her days as a sort of favoured aunt to Henry’s children with his second wife, and loved by the populace for her charitable works.

Chenonceau - my favourite castle. So I can see why Catherine was a bit peeved when her husband gave it to his mistress...
Chenonceau – my favourite castle. So I can see why Catherine was a bit peeved when her husband gave it to his mistress…

Despite the light tone, the book feels well-researched, although I give my usual disclaimer that I’m not qualified to judge its historical accuracy. Goldstone handles all the personalities well, making it easy for the reader to keep up, despite the fact that almost everyone is called either Henri or Henry. I felt that she was very biased in Marguerite’s favour and against Catherine. As often as not, the source material that she quotes is Marguerite’s own memoirs – again, I can’t judge, but I’d have assumed these would not be an unbiased account of the period. My own view was that Catherine was indeed not a shining example of motherhood, or Queenhood for that matter, but that Marguerite wasn’t exactly blameless either. Both women seemed willing to use their subjects as dispensable pawns in their own struggle for power and wealth and both seemed to have a pretty superficial view of what was important in life – money, sex, money, power and money. Goldstone remarks on Marguerite’s devotion to Catholicism frequently, but her moral behaviour suggests she was pretty relaxed about following the Church’s teachings only when it suited her.

Goldstone just stops short of claiming that Marguerite’s sexual adventures showed her to be an early feminist, demanding the same sexual freedom as the men. This seemed like a fairly ridiculous leap to me – historical characters must surely be judged by the standards of the society in which they lived rather than by those of today, and there seems little doubt that Marguerite was more promiscuous, or at least less discreet, than was considered acceptable at the time. And Goldstone is fairly harsh on Catherine for remaining in control (emotionally and politically) each time one of her children died – again I felt this was projecting today’s sensibilities backwards. Early death was much commoner then and therefore something that had to be coped with. I wondered if Goldstone would have expected a King to fall apart in similar circumstances. It seemed a bit unbalanced that Marguerite’s behaviour was a sign of feminism while Catherine’s was a sign of unwomanliness.

Marguerite de Valois
Marguerite de Valois

A biased history then, I think, but a highly readable one. At points it reads like a great thriller, complete with cliffhanger endings to chapters, and then at others it becomes like an episode of Dallas, with Catherine in the role of JR and Marguerite as sweet little Pamela. It concentrates entirely on the machinations of those in power, so there is no feeling for the social history of the time beyond mentions of the disruption caused by the religious wars. For me, this was a limitation although clearly an intentional one, and it undoubtedly made the book easier to read and more enjoyable. However sometimes I felt the subject matter perhaps deserved a rather more serious treatment – one feels somehow that the French people probably didn’t have as much fun living under these awful monarchs as I had reading about them. A great starter book though for someone who, like me, knows very little of that period of French and European history – a very palatable way to learn some history.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Weidenfield & Nicolson.

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The Grand Cru Heist (The Winemaker Detective Series 2) by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen

the grand cru heistA pleasurable palate-cleanser…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When winemaker and critic Benjamin Cooker is brutally attacked and car-jacked one night in Paris, he feels he needs to take some time out of work to recover, so he heads for the Loire Valley where he can do a bit of wine-tasting while otherwise taking it easy. That’s the plan anyway, until one of the other guests at the hotel is murdered and the waiter disappears. Meantime one of Cooker’s friends in the wine business is being targeted with a series of anonymous letters from someone who appears to be stealing cases of his wine from different places. Suddenly Cooker and his assistant Virgile seem to be involved in two investigations…

This delightfully short book falls firmly into the category of ‘cosy’. There is a plot and an investigation, and there are a few darker moments around Cooker’s feelings of vulnerability after being attacked and the illness of Virgile’s sister. But these are all tucked comfortably into the spaces between the long leisurely meals, discussions of fine wine, post-prandial cigars and drooling over vintage cars with which Cooker fills his day.

vineyard loire valley

This is the second in a series, though the first I’ve read, and both Cooker and Virgile are well-developed and likeable characters with whom it is a pleasure to spend some time. Cooker is middle-aged and happily married, with a temper but loyal to his friends, and with a zest for life that covers both his work and leisure time. Virgile is his young assistant, attractive and unattached, who is learning about the business and occasionally about life from the older man. The rest of the characters aren’t quite so well-developed, perhaps unsurprisingly in a book that comes in at around 150 pages; and the murder element of the plot is fairly easy to work out, though the other strand about the wine-thefts and letters is less straightforward. The quality of the writing is good as is the translation by Anne Trager.

Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen
Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen

I’m not going to pretend that this book counts as great literature – it’s not trying to be. But it’s a light, pleasurable read that works beautifully to cleanse the palate between heavier books. I’ve already downloaded one of the others in the series to have in reserve for the next time I need a quick pick-me-up. Recommended.

Thanks to Margot at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist for recommending this one – here’s her review.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Le French Book.

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