The narrator whose name we never learn, so I shall call her “N”, is a Parisian teacher with a young daughter, abandoned recently by her husband, who gets embroiled in an intense love affair with Sarah, a talented violinist who plays in a string quartet at international concerts. Extrovert, capricious, out to shock, Sarah cuts a striking figure with her distinctive, mysterious beauty, nose hooked like a bird’s beak, green eyes the colour of malachite, or absinthe, hooded like a serpent’s – this gives a flavour of the book’s extravagant flow of words to describe her in minute detail. Quite what Sarah sees in the comparatively ordinary N, whether she genuinely reciprocates the passion, is never made clear, but it seems neither woman has been involved in a lesbian relationship before.
The novel succeeds in depicting an obsessive love, at times mixed with hate in the first part, followed in the second half by the intense grief of an irretrievably lost love, evoking a bizarre sense of relief mingled with guilt. This is achieved by continual repetition of incidents and phrases with a hypnotic effect, often like the variations on a musical theme.
The prose switches between a poetic flow and dry definitions incongruously inserted in the text to create some contrived, heavy-handed, metaphors as when Sarah, having stated, “I think I’m in love with you”, strikes a match, which gives off the odour of sulphur, followed by a definition of sulphur, “symbol S”, followed by a description of Sarah, “symbol S”. Another occurs in Trieste where N, who has taken refuge alone, is troubled by an intense moaning which turns out to be the local wind, the bora, “which drives people mad”, but in her increasingly demented state, N observes, “I know it isn’t the wind, but its you, Sarah who is howling…you’ve found me and your will not leave me in peace”. At this point the novel takes on hints of a gothic horror tale.
The relationship takes its course in a kind of vacuum in which N’s daughter, the ex-husband who wants partial custody, the interim Bulgarian boyfriend, colleagues at work who might be wondering what is afoot remain ciphers, blank slates. Rather than become irritated by the implausibility of all this, one has to assume that the focus on the love affair to the virtual exclusion of everyone else is intentional to heighten its claustrophobic intensity. However, it becomes so extreme and long drawn out that I never really felt myself engaged in it. Perhaps a more tightly written novella would have made more impact.
It seems that, herself obsessed by Margaret Duras, author of “Hiroshima mon Amour”, the author tried to portray a passionate affair in imitation, perhaps appearing a little pretentious and “pseudo-literary” in the process.
We know from the prologue that the love is doomed, since the N is lying in bed with her love as she dies – but at the end of the novel we are left wondering whether Sarah really did die, and if so how, while N’s fate is also ambiguous. Sarah certainly seems to be mentally unstable, and the love affair seems to drive N into a state of madness, so that at the end she in a sense becomes Sarah, in what seems a circular narrative. It seems that the author wishes to leave the interpretation of the novel open to each individual reader.