Les Possibles by Virginie Grimaldi: French hen lit

When a carelessly discarded cigarette end sets fire to his home, Jean takes it for granted that his daughter Juliane will take him in indefinitely. Her stolid husband Gaëtan tolerates the situation, five-year-old Charlie is delighted by his grandfather’s childlike antics, but Juliane is exasperated by the often implausibly eccentric and inconsiderate behaviour which in the past drove her mother to divorce Jean.

It is only when he begins to show signs of dementia, likely to advance rapidly, that Juliane begins to appreciate Jean’s zest for life, and freedom from the constraints of caring what other people think. With her own lack of self esteem, she could benefit by learning from this. So she can laugh nostalgically with her sister of the time when, to slay a child’s nightmares, he vanquished an imaginary dragon in the downstairs loo with the aid of the garden hose.

Largely “rave reviews” from readers extol this novel’s humour and “feel good” factor, while the darker aspects are airbrushed. So the last chapter (in the original French), «Stairway to Heaven» – Led Zeppelin, is a clear reference to the inevitable outcome, but Jean’s last days are completely glossed over. This milking of a potentially moving situation, with its focus on sentimentality and denial of painful reality seems superficial, even dishonest.

Published in 2015, French author Virginie Grimaldi’s first novel was an instant bestseller and by 2022 she had produced eight more, heading up the list of “the most read” novelists in France. Reading “Les Possibles” for a French book group, I gained some useful vocabulary, but the novel seems quite formulaic: eighty-two short chapters, often barely three pages in length; a string of incidents padded out with “tick box” modern issues to which readers can relate – narrator’s eating disorder, dysphasic son (who displays little evidence of this) lesbian sister and so on. The final chapters which focus on a US road trip along Route 66 are each titled with the gimmick of the name of a pop song in English, linked to the story line, such as «Little Girl Blue» – Janis Joplin, a cue for the sisters’ shared recollections of Jean from their childhood.

The Forgiven by Lawrence Osborne: “La Bess” – “No evil” in the land of the outraged jinns

Drunk and bickering with his wife Jo,  English doctor David Henniger drives too fast on an unfamiliar road through the Moroccan desert, already late for an obscenely extravagant weekend house party thrown by a gay couple, Richard and Dally,  who have created an exotic paradise in an isolated oasis. This tense, engrossing tale reveals the aftermath of the fatal accident for which David appears to be responsible.  It  grips us with the remarkably vivid and original descriptions of  the landscape and “sense of place”, since the novelist is also  a  nomadic travel writer, which may account for the  acute, dispassionate observer’s eye which he casts on a group of generally quite unlikeable characters, although he tends to supply extenuating circumstances or redeeming features for the most flawed.

He also portrays the cultural gap between the local people and the wealthy,  hedonistic expats and visitors from Europe and the States. The former scrape a harsh living, extracting fossils from the rich supplies for which the country is famous. They  still use child labour, since, suspended on ropes, only small bodies can squeeze into the small caves in the cliffs where some of the best fossils can be found for sale at exorbitant prices. The native Moroccans are appalled by the infidels’  godless ways,  their drinking, “distasteful sexual habits” and “profligate” expenditure, but admire their wealth and rely on them to provide employment and purchase their trilobites at inflated prices.

In turn, the Westerners may admire the beauty of the young servant boys, but generally  ignore the Moroccans, despising their  apparent ignorance and  abject poverty. They are more interested in the country as a place to indulge in hedonistic pleasure, free from censure and  constraint: to become stoned on kif every night, while served “stemmed glasses with a pricked peach in each one submerged in champagne”. If their excessive consumption becomes repetitive to the point of tedium, that would appear to be the author’s intention.

Almost everyone, either side of the cultural divide, is distanced from the reader by a marked lack of natural, spontaneous emotion.  This may be explained by past misfortune or disappointment, harsh treatment,  or  the insulating effect of  an inflated sense of entitlement.

An intriguing character is Hamid, the indispensable factotum who has “insinuated” himself into the lives of the gay couple “with a subtle intuition of the ways of rich foreigners…an awareness of how to deal with men who have known little hardship”. He rises to the occasion in a major crisis, giving practical help  (“It is the police. I will put away the drinks”), but enjoying their helplessness and evident fear of Moroccans, despite not fully realising “how little liked they were by the indigènes”.  Filled with “disengaged fatalism” Hamid draws on his vast store of quirky native proverbs: “Piece by piece the camel enters the couscous”.

Minor characters often prove more insightful than the Hennigers who seem passive victims of circumstance. Take the American guest Day:  the glamorous young giraffe-like girls from his own country “made him remember that he was almost old, in that phase of pre-oldness that was curiously more alive than the preceding stages, but alive because it was ending”.

Lawrence Osborne has been called “A Modern Graham Greene”, compared to Paul Bowles of “The Sheltering Sky” fame, as well as  Raymond Chandler and Patricia Highsmith  since he does not flinch from menace and defeat, although they are leavened by wry humour and irony. The ambition and complexity of this novel makes it more than a psychological thriller. The author is deeply concerned with issues of morality: guilt, acceptance of responsibility, retribution, making amends,  and forgiveness.  As he enters into the minds of a  wide range of characters, it is sometimes hard to know whether he is imagining their reactions, or expressing his own opinions on the state of the world.

The novel sometimes seems overlong, while the occasional  lapses in the quality of the style, a few typos and continuity errors ( the ice found at the bottom of a glass which had contained a drink served without it)  suggest a lack of editing. Too little effort was made to give an important plot development plausibility,  while  the ending left me dissatisfied, yet feeling it could not have concluded any other way. Yet over all, this is the work of a talented writer: many of the descriptions and observations repay reading more than once, and the story lingers in the mind, giving pause for reflection. I shall certainly read more of Lawrence Osborne’s work.

Red Shelley by Paul Foot: radical before his time

Performance poet Benjamin Zephaniah tells the anecdote of how, as a punishment at school, he was given Shelley’s famous poem, “The Mask of Anarchy”, to analyse. When he informed the teacher of his inability to understand it, she cruelly branded him “stupid”. This should have put him Shelley for life, except that years later he came across a copy of Paul Foot’s biography “Red Shelley”, which made him a great admirer of the poet overnight.

This book makes it clear that the poem was inspired by the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 in which hundreds were injured, a few even killed, as sabre-wielding mounted soldiers tried to break up a crowd of many thousands demonstrating to demand parliamentary reform, which did not commence until twenty years after Shelley’s death. As the member of a wealthy and privileged family, who had developed a keen sense of the injustice of inequality and the need to redistribute wealth from the “idle rich” to those who actually work to produce goods, Paul Foot probably felt an affinity with Shelley.

With no particular love for C19 Romantic poetry, I had failed to appreciate the serious ideas behind it in Shelley’s case, although I have to admit that his rational arguments impress me most in his written prose. Expelled from Oxford for writing a pamphlet on atheism, he wrote, “Supposing twelve men were to make an affidavit…. that they had seen in Africa a vast snake three miles long… that…eat nothing but Elephants, & that you knew from all the laws of nature, that enough Elephants cd. not exist to sustain the snake – wd. you believe them?”

Growing up against the background of the French Revolution, and coming from a wealthy Whig, anti-Tory, anti-government family probably exposed him to liberal ideas from an early age. His support for “the unfriended poor”, was based on his observation of the suffering caused by the enclosure of farmland and the squalid working conditions of the Industrial Revolution. His ideas went beyond a verbal attack on the arbitrary power of kings, and the cynical use of the Established Church as a tool of social control. He saw before many others that giving people the vote would not in itself solve the injustice of major inequality. This required “the levelling of inordinate wealth, and an agrarian distribution of the rich, uncultivated districts of the country”. Many of his ideas still seem surprisingly, and depressingly, relevant (and unachieved) today.

Shelley’s advocacy of free love also heaped opprobrium on his head. Paul Foot possibly lets him off too lightly, in underestimating the extent to which this argument was used by men as an excuse for “free sex” and treat women badly or disregard the pain that it can cause. Although Shelley genuinely seems to have supported “feminist” views, to believe in equality for women and to respect their intellects, as in the case of his second wife Mary Shelley, his abandonment of his first wife Harriet, who ultimately took her own life, is troubling.

Paul Foot admits to a certain inconsistency in Shelley. For all this radical poetry, “Let the axe/Strike at the root, the poison-tree will fall”, he was terrified by the physical violence of an angry mob. His attempts at being a political agitator in Ireland, or an agent raising money for the Tremadoc dam projects, which he imagined leading to a “perfect, idealistic society” for the workers, came to nothing. Since the latter provoked an unsuccessful assassination attempt on him (only his dressing gown was shot through with bullet holes), Shelley’s fear seems justified. At least Shelley’s “bitter satires” were read most widely amongst working class readers.

He ended up in Italy, furious over the 1819 ban on his political writing, although at least he escaped imprisonment for it, unlike some of those prepared to print his work. Isolated and often depressed, spending more time with Byron who had no interest in interfering with property and rank, than with any oppressed Italians, Shelley continued to write, producing his most famous “Ode to the West Wind” shortly before his accidental drowning.

There may be some small excuses for my previous neglect of Shelley. The late C19 saw what Paul Foot calls “an orgy of cultured Shelley-worship”, which stressed his “belief in freedom” and “lyric” poetry, censoring out all the controversial atheism, feminism and extreme views. In the 1930s, Shelley was savaged by the influential critic F.R. Leavis, for his “sloppy metaphors”, for plagiarising Shakespeare, and for his inability “to grasp something real” resulting in poetry which had “little to do with thinking”. But from what I have just seen of Shelley’s poetry, it is full of ideas and beliefs which make it worth reading, even if the language used tends to be excessive or lacking in discipline by some critical standards.

L’Enfant de Noé (Noah’s Child) par Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt: The Art of Survival

Six-year-old Joseph’s carefree life in Brussels is shattered when his mother hears rumours of an imminent Nazi round-up of Jewish families in the neigbourhood. A means of escape comes in the form of the wily, eccentric Catholic priest, Father Pons who procures false papers to enable Joseph to be concealed in an orphanage, the Villa Jaune.

This short novel is part of a series, “The Cycle of the Invisible”, which explore religious themes from a child’s viewpoint, in this case the links between Christianity and Judaism in a situation where followers of the former are perpetrating the terrible crimes of the Shoah, or genocide, against the latter.
What could prove unbearably grim is leavened by the author’s fertile imagination and dry wit, as when Father Pons muses whether it would have been better for him to be Jewish, causing Joseph to insist, “Stay Christian, you don’t realise how lucky you are!” The priest explains that the Jewish insistence on respect is more practical than the Christian emphasis on love, demanding, “Would you turn the other cheek to Hitler?”

Despite the widepread popularity of Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s novels and short stories, I find myself in ageement with a reviewer who suggests that the author has augmented his sales by producing short novels of less than a hundred pages, with tear-jerking themes, leaving the reader crushed beneath an “avalanche” of worthy sentiments, with a vague sense of guilt over expressing any criticism on this score.
Perhaps because I read this in a French edition designed for students, with “tricky” words defined, comprehension questions and background analysis, this seems like a book written for adolescents, to raise their awareness of the Holocaust, and grasp its impact on those who survived it. Particularly if viewed from an adult perspective, some scenes appear too far-fetched, such as the priest’s implausible scheme to hide the Jewish children when the Gestapo finally came to arrest them. Some descriptions seem too exaggerated as in the opening description of the parlous state of Joseph’s footwear.
Despite his understandable naivety, Joseph often seems too advanced for his age, as he plays the role of confidant to Father Pons, and mentor for the shamblng Rudy, ten years his senior in age. Joseph’s relationship with the priest sometimes seem too mawkishly sentimental.

The most interesting part of the novel for me was the final part with its focus on the unexpected problems of dealing with the sudden freedom of liberation, and the problems of returning to a “normal” family life and switching back from an assumed Christian to a practising Jewish life. Unfortunately, the final section appears too rushed and underdeveloped, as if the author is anxious to move on to another project. The device of Joseph eventually following in Father Pons’ footsteps, marking the modern-day Israel-Palestinian conflict by collecting two items- a Jewish kippah and Arab scarf left behind after a fight – is a little corny, but makes for a neat ending.

I found the author’s tone in an interview which concluded my edition somewhat condescending and pretentious: “the novelist makes a contract with the reader, he tells him ‘I’m going to interest you, take you by the hand and lead you on a voyage that you will not make without me; you will come across new places, unfamiliar, which perhaps frighten you, but have confidence, I will not let go of your hand and perhaps you will thank me on arrival. Courageous, delicate and firm, such must be the grip of the storyteller.’ ”

French Braid by Anne Tyler: “This is a story that never ends, Yes, it goes on and on my friends…”

Anne Tyler’s twenty-fourth novel, several books after her publicly stated intention to give up writing, is the saga of the Baltimore-based Garrett family, spanning four generations from 1959 to 2020 in the throes of the Covid pandemic.

With its focus on only eight specific situations or incidents over this period of time, this really seems more like a series of short stories, in which many significant events like a marriage or a death have to be inferred. The continual change in the point of view provides insights into how some characters perceive each other, but with many family members and friends being two-dimensional “extras”, so numerous that it is hard to keep up with them, I rarely felt emotionally engaged.

It is probably intentional that there are so many mundane details of ordinary daily life, from which Anne Tyler can conjure the farcical situations, by turns amusing or poignant, and the wry insights for which she has long been praised. US readers old enough to recognise and recall the cultural references from the 1950s may feel waves of nostalgia, although I had to look up Salk vaccine (developed in the US for polio) and just gloss over the Amercanisms. However, more so I think than with her earlier books, at times I found the banality and weight of descriptions, often expressed in a folksy style, unbearably tedious, and persevered to the end only to avoid missing some final “big reveal”, which would of course be very “untylerish”. In fact there are a couple of minor revelations at the end – to the characters concerned, if not to the reader.

The novel raises a few questions for discussion. After marrying too young, when Mercy Garrett’s children leave home, she feels free at last to pursue her desire to become an artist. Without formally separating from, or even divorcing her devoted husband Robin, she leaves him to go and live in a studio, but does so gradually, returning to cook the evening meal, or do the laundry, but never facing up to an open discussion about the situation. Accepting this as feasible, is this an act of courage or cowardice? Is it, as some readers believe, a belated assertion of feminist independence, or simply the act of a self-centred, calculating person?

Just as an undone French braid leaves “ripples” in the hair, “that’s how families work too,” as one character observes. “You think you’re free of them, but you’re never really free; the ripples are crimped in forever”. This is patently clear, but hardly an original thought. The way families may “hide a few uncomfortable truths, allow a few self-deceptions”, both “little kindnesses” and “little cruelties” is a more interesting issue.

“Pour le sourire de Lenny” by Dany Rousson: “When it’s all for the best……….”

Titi is a charming young man who has fallen on hard times after being rejected by his family for having fallen into bad company. When some drunken gang members turn on him, he is rescued by Savate, a surly character, quick to anger, who has been ruined and embittered by some past traumatic events, but does not like to see a lone man outnumbered and beaten to the ground.

When the two tramps wander into the picturesque old Provençal city of Aigues-Mortes in search of work, they meet with rejection, are reduced to begging, even their tent is destroyed. Against the odds, a few charitable inhabitants, who turn out to be acquainted in some of the books too frequent coincidences, are prepared to help and give them the benefit of the doubt.

A young skateboard fanatic called Lenny strikes a lost chord in Savate who teaches him acrobatic skills learned in some previous, repressed life. When tragedy strikes, is it chance or destiny? To what extent is Savate responsible, and how will matters turn out?

Judging by the cover of the edition I read, which made me think my French reading group must have chosen a children’s book, you may be reasonably confident of a happy ending, with loose ends tied in overstated knots. Despite themes of marital breakdown, suppressed ambitions, dead-end jobs, and some appalling misfortune, this is a “feel good” book in which unpleasant events are sanitized and deep emotions are airbrushed. Characters are stereotyped into two-dimensional “good” and “bad”. Even the descriptions of the Camargue horses, the bullfights and the historic landmarks of Aigues-Mortes seem like a plug for the tourist trade.

The “do as you would be done by” dedication says it all. “To all the Savates and Titis, to the invisible people whom we could all become, you and me, if fate decided to play a dirty trick on us. To those who stretch out their hands to them and open their hearts. To hope, to life”.

If only it were so simple! It’s escapism for adults, perhaps justifiable in grim times.

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams: “Understanding why some words are more important than others!”

Motherless Esme spends a good deal of time at her father’s workplace – the Scriptorium, a somewhat misleadingly named shed in the garden of Dr. Murray, who in 1884 embarked on the mammoth project of creating the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) with the aim of filling the gaps in Samuel Johnson’s famous work.

An inquisitive child, Esme collects the postcard-sized slips of paper which fall into her hiding place beneath a work table. Each slip contains a word submitted for consideration with a definition or quotation containing it. She forms the habit of keeping for herself words which she has been told will not appear in the dictionary, since there is no written record of them to provide the necessary “evidence”.

As an adult, Esme chooses not to become actively involved in the “votes for women” campaign, and she seems to accept fairly meekly the fact that, simply through being female, she is unable to gain qualifications and advance as a lexicographer or editor, despite her obvious knowledge and capability. Yet her unusual childhood makes her unconventional in surprising ways, so that, to keep a measure of personal freedom, she makes a radical and painful decision of the kind she may regret for the rest of her life.

Increasingly aware that the OED reflects and is limited by the vocabulary of educated men brought up in the Victorian era, Esme finds an outlet for her suppressed frustration and her curiosity through acts of quiet defiance: collecting and creating a written record of the words which ordinary, often illiterate people use in daily conversation, unlikely to be heard by lexicographers in the strongly class-divided society of the time. She realises that words used by and about women in particular are missing from the OED, including those considered obscene, but in common use. So “knackered” is noted as an overworked servant’s graphic description of feeling exhausted. “Dollymop” is a pejorative term for a prostitute, or an actress who is presumed to be one.

One might criticise the author for applying “modern” attitudes to the situation in the early C20, yet through Esme she is making a thought-provoking point.

Not until reading the Author’s Note at the end did I appreciate the extent of her impressively detailed research. Imaginary characters like Esme, and the loyal servant and friend Lizzie who does her best to be a mother to her, are interwoven quite skilfully with the real Doctor Murray and his family, together with Esme’s godmother Ditte and her novelist sister Beth, both volunteers who contributed words to the cause.

One of the most interesting aspects is the continual definition of words. I’ve learned that “cushy” comes from the Hindu word “khush” for pleasure, while “bumf” was apparently used in the First World War for scraps of paper needed for the trench latrines.

As an Australian writer, Pip Williams manages to weave in that the descendants of the Karuna people did not lose their natives language as a result of colonisation, because German missionaries made the effort to consult with the Aboriginal men, and write it down for the record.

Although I was drawn by the originality of the theme, the narrative frequently drags under the weight of repetition and detailed banal descriptions. It could be argued that this conveys the nature of Esme’s life in what is on one level a deeply realised fictional autobiography. There is excessive sentimentality for my taste, and some unconvincing plot developments with too many coincidences, or a tendency to “come to nothing”, except to pad out a book which often seems overlong.

It is worth making the effort to finish this novel, which should provoke a lively, wide-ranging discussion, making it a good choice for a book group.

“Light Perpetual” by Francis Spufford: Making light of it?

In 1944, instead of flying four hundred yards further to land in a park and kill a few pigeons,  or even failing to launch at all, a German warhead  explodes in a branch  of Woolworths in the fictional London Borough of Bexford. Amongst those atomised are five  young children out shopping with their mothers as they stand transfixed by a rare delivery of gleaming saucepans.

Based on a real event, this situation prompts a remarkable opening chapter in which the author displays his verbal pyrotechnics to describe the action of the blast wave in the minute detail  which is a feature of his many subsequent flourishes of creative writing.

The remainder of the book plays out the lives which these five children might have led, captured at fifteen year intervals against the backdrop of the marked social changes in Britain up to 2009, when Alec, Vern, sisters Jo and Val and Ben are all pensioners.

Perhaps the novel will resonate most with those old enough to recall primary schools in the fifties, the battles between Mods and Rockers  in seaside resorts, the  rise of the teenager and pop culture, the use of new  computer technology to crush the power of  the printers holding newspaper owners to ransom with hot metal typesetting,  the channelling of white male insecurity into the violence  of fascist groups like the British Movement, the property boom, the financial crash of 2008, the transformation of urban areas into multicultural communities, and so on. Yet with limited space, the novel can only give a flavour of the massive changes of the second half of the C20.

Our awareness from the outset that the children’s lives are imagined, “what might have been”, should give a sense of poignancy, but in fact one soon forgets that this is  is the case. It even seems irrelevant, since it is so apparent that  random  chance, fate, force of circumstance, call it what you will, affect us all to such a degree, causing the lives of the five children to diverge so markedly, although ironically they all end up in the vicinity of Bexford.

The  mainly working class characters appear for the most part stereotyped. Greedy bully Vern grows up to cheat people to finance his property deals. Smart Alec, married and child-bound by his early twenties,  is too delighted by his skills, enthroned as “king and alchemist” of typesetting,  to grasp that the writing is on the wall – or rather on the computer screen. When he eventually finds a new role,  it is too late for him to achieve his full potential, and his gains are made at  considerable personal cost. Maybe as a result of being born too long before the “women’s liberation” of the 1970s,  sisters, Jo and Val, spend too much of their lives allowing themselves to be dominated by men with whom they are infatuated. Jo’s sudden sense, aged 70, that her whole life rests on accidents, that “surely her real life is waiting to happen” is a telling insight  on what many people must feel.

Although Francis Spufford has the skill to make watching paint dry interesting,  his trademark of shooting off on tangents of minutely detailed descriptions of a sensation or incident  may be great material for a master class in creating writing but can prove wearisome  –  overwritten and repetitive. Examples are a” matter of opinion, but I am thinking of obsessive Ben’s anxiety attack (involving “CHARRED RIBS) on a London bus while inappropriately employed as a bus conductor, or the description of Jo’s attempt to work on composing in her Californian apartment a piece of music, years in gestation,  to which her self-absorbed pop singer employer, some-time lover will never bother to listen and promote. The  full pathos of these two situations is  lost in the verbiage.

Despite proving entertaining overall,  by turns comic,  profoundly sad and philosophical,  this feels like a soap opera which could have included many other scenes en route, or continued until all the characters are  made to pass on at the age of 100.  The conclusion actually reached seems disappointingly woolly:

“Mightn’t there be a line of sight, not ours, from which the seeming cloud of debris of our days, no more in order than (say) the shredded particles riding the wavefront of an explosion, prove to align. Into a clockface of transparencies. The whole mess a rose, a window.”

Of course, one may feel that this links back, cleverly but contrived, to the bomb explosion at the beginning.

“The Promise” by Damon Galgut: Four Funerals and no Weddings

In the final years of South African apartheid,  twelve-year-old Amor overhears her dying mother extract from her husband Manie Swarts a promise to give their faithful black servant  Salome the decrepit house she has occupied for years.

Over more than three decades, from the mid-1980s to 2018,  the failure to honour this promise, even when the excuse that it would be against the law for Salome to inherit the house no longer applies,  is a symbol of the blight that contributes to the family’s decline.

“The Promise” of the title can be construed in different ways. Amor’s  handsome, intelligent older brother Anton does not fulfil his youthful promise.  Has he never recovered from  the “wonder and despair” of the day in his  national service, when he shot  dead a  black female demonstrator as she stooped to pick up a stone,  and learned of his own mother’s death?  Does the tension between the ingrained prejudice of his Afrikaner upbringing and his awareness of the family’s untenable position seal his fate?  There is a parallel in  the failure of Salome’s son Lukas  to realise his potential,   because his anger over the injustice of their situation drives him to violent resistance.

The title could also refer to the betrayal of the hope sparked by the  end of apartheid,  by Mandela’s elevation from “a cell to a throne”, the vision of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission  and the growing  international acceptance of South Africa to the point of hosting and winning the 1995 World Cup. All too soon, corruption at the highest level  destroys respect for a black president and  and the growth of violent crime, forcing wealthy white families behind ever higher security fences,  undermines the progress to a better society.

Despite a plot focussed on the Swarts meeting up for four funerals over some three decades, the novel is less depressing and more entertaining than might be expected. Damon Galgut’s narration is for the most part a quirky black farce. For instance, having saved his daughter from a lightning strike, Manie repents of his former gambling and womanising,  only to fall under the spell of a manipulative local pastor. Manie not only gives him land for the “big, ugly…The First Assembly of the Revelation Church” but agrees to fundraise for it. He rashly trusts  that his faith will save him from a lethal bite when he  climbs into a glass case with a cobra from his own “Scaly City” reptile park,  a business venture to boost the  income from his family farm on the dry veldt.  

I can forgive the occasional flirting with magic realism or tendency to address the reader directly, because of the author’s skill in sustaining a quicksilver slide from the situation and inner thoughts of one character to the next,  requiring the reader to pay attention, for this is a novel that “shows” rather than “tells”.  No doubt it won the Booker Prize not only for its original style – a kind of C21 William Faulkner, with a wry humour – but also for the insights into human nature and the state of South Africa which continually break through the irony.

Take Amor’s return to the farm after a decade’s absence, most recently in England:

“Return feels more like a condition than an act, one for  which she’s in no way prepared. The suddenness of it…like a great white concussion, a sort of impact. Inevitable but also unbearable. She can’t sleep on the flight..How ordinary and how strange human life is. And how delicately poised. Your own end might lie just in front of you, under your feet…………”

Later, “the view from the taxi window is a bit amazing….South Africa is playing France later, and the pavements throb and throng with bodies. Never did the middle of town look like this, so many black people drifting casually about, as if they belong here. It’s almost like an African city!”  Which, of course, it is.

“Des gens comme eux” (People like them) by Samira Sedira – “On est plus criminel quelquefois qu’on ne pense”.

In this short novel, based on a real-life shocking crime, Samira Sedira explores what could motivate “normal”, decent, mild-mannered Constant Guillot to murder five members of the Langlois family, recently moved to the fictional village of Carmac, a close-knit, insular community in rural France on the banks of the aptly named river, “La Trouble”.

The narrator, Constant’s wife Anna, begins with a lulling description of the peaceful, orderly way of life in Carmac, only to break the spell with a shocking reference to the carnage which erupted while unheeding neighbours tidied up after their evening meal. The succeeding chapters alternate between scenes of Constant’s trial, and flashbacks to reveal gradually the events leading up to the crime. These create a degree of sympathy for Constant, who has suffered some major setbacks of which the sharp practice of Bakary Langlois proves the last straw. However, acute resentment, a sense of injustice, and envy of the newcomers’ apparent wealth and flashy lifestyle provide scant mitigation for acts of such disproportionate violence. There is the suggestion that, as in real life, some of the antagonism towards Bakary was because he was black, but this theme is not developed.

There are some well-observed scenes: an awkward Christmas party to which Bakary invites his less prosperous neighbours, apparently having left it too late to arrange for his “old” friends to visit; the evening fun fair at Carmac where everyone is briefly brought together dancing to the old hit ABBA song “Dancing Queen”. Yet these do not shed much light on what led to the crime, and tend to reduce the dramatic tension.

The plot is quite disjointed, with the unsatisfactory omission of the major events, apart from Constant’s account of the murder, made all the more chilling by his dispassionate delivery at the trial. So we have to infer too much from what is implied as to, for instance, how Constant comes to be charged, how those who know him react, how Anna chooses to act when the trial was over, and so on.

Some telling insights emerge. Anna feels herself to be blamed as the wife of murderer almost as much as he is himself. She has failed to see her husband’s true evil nature in time to prevent his crime. After the event, she is criticised continually for her failure to act appropriately, for being too coldly lacking in sympathy or hysterically self-centred, too intrusively present or lacking the decency to show up when she should.

I was most struck by the observation at the end that none of those around Constant is innocent, “We all collaborated”. Perhaps it is the author’s intention to leave it to the reader to reflect on exactly what part each individual plays in triggering Constant’s violence. However, it seems a weakness that this was not more fully explored as the novel moves to its abrupt and rather weak and nebulous ending.

The idea that we are all more criminal than we think, even capable of a savage act if “pushed to the limit” may lie at the heart of this novel. However, it left me feeling somewhat unengaged and unconvinced. I was at least motivated to read about the rather different real life case of the fate of the Flactif family in Haute-Savoie in 2003, which proved quite intriguing.

Published in English as “People like them”