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.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 69 – The TBR Book Tag

Confession time!

 

This tag has been doing the rounds recently – I first saw it here on Cleo’s blog – Cleopatra Loves Books. So I thought I’d share some of the arcane secrets of the TBR with you…

Part of the problem...
Part of the problem…

How do you keep track of your TBR pile?

 

I have a ridiculously complicated spreadsheet with different cross-referenced lists for the TBR, the GAN Quest, where I’ve posted reviews, lists of reviews by ratings (to aid in the FF Awards thingy), books from NetGalley, books that aren’t yet published that I want to acquire and my reading schedule for the next three months (which I almost never stick to, but have great fun rearranging)! Then there’s the list for a new feature I’m considering for next year. And a list to keep track of what reviews are doing well (and badly) on Amazon – UK and US. Oh, and a list of authors who got 5-stars for the last book I read, to remind me to read one of their other books as soon as I can fit them in. It’s a wonder I ever have any time to read, really…

Did I mention the colour coding? And the blame list of who made me add it?
Did I mention the colour coding? And the blame list of who made me add it?

Is your TBR mostly print or e-book?

 

Mostly e-book, but I do like to read paper books as well, especially factual and classics, or illustrated books. E-books for crime fiction mostly, though.

Another part of the problem...
Another part of the problem…

How do you determine which book from your TBR to read next?

 

Sadly, for the last couple of years that’s been driven by my addiction to NetGalley, and trying to review as near publication date as possible, but I’m making a big effort to take far fewer review copies so that I can go back to choosing on the basis of mood. It’s actually beginning to work…

A book that’s been on your TBR the longest?

 

Green for Danger by Christianna Brand. I only started having a TBR list when I started blogging and this was one of the first books I was tempted into by a blog review. It’s been on the TBR for nearly three years now… it would almost be a shame to read it!

green for danger

A book you recently added to your TBR?

 

The most recent addition is The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White. There’s a reason for that… but I’m not telling you what it is yet. Crime aficionados might be able to guess though…

the wheel spins

A book on your TBR strictly because of its beautiful cover?

 

Nope – I do like covers but am never influenced by them alone, good or bad, though if they’re especially good, they might at least tempt me to look at the blurb. This one did, and it introduced me to an author who’s now a firm favourite…

Equilateral

A book on your TBR that you never plan on reading?

 

Why would I do that? (Though Moby Dick does keep getting moved down… and it might be a while before I get around to The Narrow Road to the Deep North…)

An unpublished book on your TBR that you’re excited for?

 

I Am No One by Patrick Flanery. Flanery has won my Book of the Year Award twice in four years for Absolution and Fallen Land. His new one is due out in February. And Peter May’s new one, Coffin Road, is being kept aside to read over Christmas. Publication due in January.

A book on your TBR that everyone has read but you?

 

Hmm… not really. The closest that I can think of is The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, although a few of the GAN Quest books have been read by most Americans, it seems, often at school. But they often haven’t been read by many Brits.

A book on your TBR that everyone recommends to you?

 

The aforesaid Moby Dick! Though I reckon they only recommend it ‘cos they like it when I hate a book…

A book on your TBR that you’re dying to read?

 

Pretty much all of them (except Moby Dick) or they wouldn’t be on there. But if I have to pick just one then I’m really keen to read Let the Great World Spin. And Gone with the Wind, Americanah, and Even the Dead. (You didn’t really think I could stick to one, did you?)

How many books are on your Goodreads TBR shelf?

 

None! I don’t use it – I only list books I’ve read or am reading on Goodreads. However, since both Cleo and MarinaSofia have ‘fessed up, I’d better too. I’ve spent most of this week reorganising my TBR (great fun!). Since most people seem to think of their TBR as books they actually possess, I took off most of the books I don’t own yet, and replaced them with all the books I do own that weren’t previously on it – the hidden list, you might call it. Then I added the removed ones that I don’t own yet to my Amazon wishlist. So here goes…

Books for review from NetGalley and publishers                                             28

Owned (mostly unread, but a few re-reads)                                                  126

Total TBR                                                                                                154

GAN Quest books owned but not yet on the TBR (complicated, isn’t it?)         12

On the wishlist (which I consider to be part of the TBR really, since
they don’t get on there unless I mean to read them)                                     195

Must reads being published in the next two months
that I haven’t managed to acquire yet                                                             4

Grand total                                                                                              365

Or roughly 3 years worth…!!!

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So better get some reading done soon! Here are a few that are coming up…

 

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I shall be making some booky New Year’s Resolutions soon – guess reducing the TBR might have to be Number 1…