Les Victorieuses by Laetitia Colombani: “Making a difference”

When a businessman on trial for fraud is found guilty, he hurls himself over the guardrail to his death six floors below on the marble floor of the foyer at the Paris Palais de Justice . This dramatic opening hook proves to be no more than the trigger for high-flying lawyer Solène’s mental breakdown. Having pursued a legal career at the cost of personal relationships, Solène is left apathetic and reliant on antidepressants. As a form of therapy, she agrees to spend every Thursday as a “scribe” for the women with a wide range of social problems, refugees and former rough sleepers living at the Salvation Army’s Paris hostel in the historical “Palais de la Femme”. Gradually, she builds a rapport with a variety of women, but her growing sense of “making a difference” proves fragile in the face of the inevitable setbacks in such a vulnerable group. Yet there is always humour and mutual support mixed with the pain and deprivation.

The storyline alternates with a fictionalised account of the real-life Blanche Peyron, wife of Commissioner Albin Peyron, who is presented as the driving force in acquiring the substantial building originally intended to house Parisian workers, constructed on the site of a former convent. The plight of a woman with a small baby, for whom Blanche could not find a suitable lodging in 1925 despite four decades of striving to eliminate the widespread problem of homelessness in the capital, was what motivated her to create the haven for women which exists to this day.

“Les Victorieuses” is very easy to read, contains flashes of insight, as in the description of how we find it hard to look homeless people in the eye as we pass them by, and raised my awareness of a piece of social history as regards the struggles of the Protestant Salvation Army to make headway in Catholic France. Sadly for my taste, the style is too coated with sentimentality– even a tweeness that seems incongruous. In this, it resembles the sugary sweets on which Solène gorges when she is feeling low.

Social problems and acts of violence tend to be glossed over or sanitised. Apart from Solène, whose personality is explored in some detail, although I am not sure she is intended to be as flawed as she actually appears, most of the other characters are somewhat two-dimensional, often stereotyped or romanticised. “Les Peyron” in particular seem too good to be true. There is a tendency to provide potted histories of past lives, rather than to undertake the harder task of revealing characters through their dialogues, behaviour and thoughts.

I read this in French, “good practice” for an English reader and likely to stimulate discussion in a book group.

Laetitia Colombani has won plaudits for “La Tresse” which some critics seem to regard as a superior novel.

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