Insights into the rural soul

This is my review of Marie DES Brebis by Christian Signol.

This is the true story written by Signol in the first person to capture the oral memories of Marie, shared with him in her old age. Found abandoned as a baby and brought up by a kindly shepherd in the remote Causse region of Quercy, Marie's life as a shepherdess, mother and husband of a quarryman spans the two World Wars and the technical advances which first disrupted and then destroyed her peaceful existence.

In a vivid account of life in a French village from the early 1900s, we see Marie taking her bread to the communal oven to be baked, her linen by cart to the washhouse twice a year, and the vital social contact she gained from all this, as from the round of traditional festivals in a community where everyone is expected to take part and support each other.

At first, I found the narrative rather sentimental and banal, as when Marie marries, when she is old enough, the farmhand sent to assist her guardians, as Signol informs us in advance as soon as Florentin makes his first appearance as a young boy, just as we are told on the birth of Marie's daughter that she will have a mind of her own and leave home at the age of eighteen.

Then, as harsher blows strike her, I began to realise that Marie's simplicity, acceptance of fate and positive attitude to adversity are not just a somewhat mawkish saintliness, but the result of her closeness to nature, of the long periods spent alone, almost meditating, observing subtle changes in the landscape and weather and the insignificance of mankind in the universe. When, in late middle age, she visits Paris, Marie is appalled by the lack of community spirit, as people pass each other in the street without any greeting, devoting themselves to acquiring material possessions. Initially, she criticises the young rioters of May '68 for protesting when they have so much, but then she realises that their "inner souls" are seeking something other than the pursuit of money, possessions and wealth.

This is a good way of practising French as the language is crystal clear (apart from the patois), with a smattering of useful idioms. It's not "great literature" but provides an insight into the mind of a good-hearted woman experiencing the undervalued pleasures and vicissitudes of rural life as it gradually crumbles away under inevitable forces of change.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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