This is my review of Uniques by Dominique Paravel.
“I shouldn’t be here” – the mantra of an overqualified supermarket employee charged with monitoring the security cameras. At least this affords the amusement of observing how people deal with the problem of items accidentally put the wrong trolley, or noticing a little old lady mischievously placing tea in the frozen fish section and salmon with the champagne. This opening chapter is not developed further, but is followed by a series of less humorous portrayals of somewhat alienated individuals caught in some of the depressing aspects of modern life: a single mother with a vicious boss pressurising her to meet targets in a call centre, or a human resources manager forced to lay off staff in a textile factory so that work can be outsourced to cheaper Far Eastern labour.
The only common factor holding the book together is that the rather stereotyped characters live in the same Lyons suburb of Vaise, which has grown up on the muddy banks of the Saône, where their paths sometimes cross, often with them barely noticing each other. The book’s structure is rather odd: Part One with four individual portraits; Part Two with an artist brought up in Lyons, consumed with nostalgia on her return there for the display of her artwork “Uniques”; Part Three a brief history of Vaise which might have been better integrated into the other sections, concluding with final fleeting images of the original four characters, with a few extra ones thrown in. This fragmented approach with no clear plot, left me feeling unengaged. Situations are too often exaggerated and lacking in subtlety, sitting uneasily with the occasional flights into surreal fantasy. The continual flipping in style between farce and poetry is also distracting at times.
The highly praised author has won prizes in France, but this feels like the work of an inexperienced fiction writer without the redeeming “Mockingbird” factor. It was worth reading in French for the practice, but I would not have bothered to persevere with it in translation.