Youth destroyed in the violence of summer

This is my review of La maison Atlantique by Besson Philippe.

We know from the first page that the narrator was orphaned as a teenager, neither of his parents’ deaths being accidental. There is a strong suspicion from the outset of his involvement in causing the tragedy at least in part, but to what extent is he also a victim?

The entire book is a protracted description of the summer he left school as an eighteen-year-old: his domineering alpha male father insists that they spend time together, patching up their differences at the holiday house on the Atlantic coast. This only serves to increase the young man’s resentment, since he associates the place with the time spent there as a child with the loving but lonely mother driven to depression by her husband’s serial infidelities. It is clear that his unresolved “chagrin” or grief will have tragic repercussions the nature of which we cannot avoid trying to predict to the bitter end.

The author displays his skills as a scriptwriter in this short novel of taut, highly controlled two-page chapters. In the clear, precise prose which never misses a beat, he builds up and sustains a sense of tension and threat, moving inexorably to a climax of physical violence all the more shocking after the prolonged pent up psychological rancour. Yet the story is never depressing or tedious. It is often humorous and ironical as it explores in detail the nuances of the main characters’ shifting emotions and motives, all seen of course through the eyes of what may be an unreliable witness as he switches between fly-on-the-wall observation and introspective flashbacks.

Although he is a somewhat unappealing character, with the excuse of having been emotionally rebuffed and neglected by his father, he often shows great sensitivity, as when he describes a failed attempt to recapture a sense of past happiness by looking at some old photographs he took of his mother, unawares. As it so often the case in this novel, this incident operates on several levels: he is writing about nostalgia, about “cet espoir têtu d’arrêter le temps. Cette promesse de conserver ce qui a été pour se le rappeler, plus tard….Cette façon de dire: le bonheur existe, puisqu’il est là, sur les photos.” He is also displaying his intense repressed grief over his mother’s death, and his inability to admit his feelings even to himself, and to come to terms with them.

I would like to read more of Besson’s work, for he seems to be a perceptive and very talented writer who deserves to be better known outside France, although I fear too much of what sets him apart might be lost in translation, just as a film of this book could easily lose the brilliance which lies in the quality of the writing.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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