This is my review of Kiffe kiffe demain (Le Livre de Poche) by Faiza Guene.
Kiffe Kiffe Demain (Same Old Tomorrow) is notable for being the work of Faïza Guène, written when still a teenager and making use of her experience as a girl of Algerian origin growing up in Paris.
The short, journal style chapters record the thoughts of Doria, a fifteen-year-old girl living in a grim tower block in a Paris suburb, understandably bitter because her father has returned to Morocco to find a new wife who will hopefully give him a son. Her illiterate mother struggles to make ends meet with a hotel cleaning job, where the racist boss calls all the Arab women "Fatima" and the Chinese workers "Ping Pong". Forced to accept charity from neighbours and buy untrendy clothing at cheap sales, Doria and her mother have to endure visits from a social worker, while the teenager is also required to visit a psychiatrist to improve her withdrawn behaviour, and low school grades.
Doria is far from a tearaway – she frantically cleans the cooker to pass muster when the social worker pays a "spot check" visit, and dresses as her mother wishes. Yet, she is quietly subversive in her private thoughts, and is drawn to unconventional people like the local drug-dealing dropout Hamoudi, who challenges the system, and quotes Rimbaud's poetry at her, encouraging her to better herself.
Doria is inevitably naive in many ways, and her dreams and reactions are generally couched in terms of the cartoons, soaps and American films she has absorbed on the TV. Her language is often crude – a weird mix of Arabic and French "verlan" – leading her to comment on how she has to make an effort to speak correctly to her "shrink" since they are "not really on the same wavelength".
There are some moving moments in the book, as when she takes her mother to see the Eiffel Tower for the first time, although it is only a short ride from home, but they meekly accept that they cannot afford the tickets to climb to the top. On another occasion Doria tells us that her eyes are like her father's so that when she looks in the mirror she sees his nostalgic look – an admission that he has been pulled back to Morocco partly through homesickness. When she can look in the mirror and see only herself, she will be cured.
The book is revealing on the status of women in Arab communities. It is interesting that three of the young women mentioned manage to escape into careers or relationships with men on equal terms – but at the price of losing contact with their roots, at least for a while.
Although the author has probably been seeking realism in plodding through a succession of mundane events, the plot is very slight and tails off at the end, with even the final note of optimism seeming rather woolly and doubtful. Most of the characters seem somewhat underdeveloped and two-dimensional, all described through Doria's eyes rather than breathing with a life of their own. What makes the story bearable is Doria's sharp-eyed observation of life, with her wry humour.
This book has been so popular that it must appeal to teenagers, but I think they deserve something a little more challenging. Guène has plenty of time to progress to this, but in the meantime I only read to the end to practise my French and learn a bit more of the "argot" which increasingly divides the generations on France.