Twenty-something Justine and her younger cousin Jules, still studying for the “Bac”, have been brought up as siblings by their paternal grandparents following the horrific death of both their parents in a car crash. The trauma of this event may be what has reduced both Justine’s self esteem and ambition, leaving her content to work as a care assistant at “Les Hortensias”, the local old people’s home in her French village. Clearly full of empathy for the residents, Justine is particularly drawn to Hélène, who lives mostly in her imagination, on a Mediterranean beach with her long dead lover Julien, yet retains the ability to recount so many of her reminiscences that Justine is able to make a detailed record of her life. It is unclear how much of this she has embellished, but does it matter?
With the chapters switching between past and present, this often seems an overcomplicated tale. When Hélène and Lucien are separated by war, what keeps them apart and how will they be reunited? Their story has a dreamlike quality, larded with sentimentality and melodrama, without flinching from some grim events. The verging on magic realism in the form of Hélène’s guardian seagull, ever-present except when reassuringly absent looking out for Lucien, makes other implausible incidents seem par for the course.
The thread based on Justine and her family forms a more authentic psychological drama which I would like to have seen developed in greater depth to form a larger part of the story. This gradually takes on the character of a crime novel. A malicious caller keeps contacting the relatives of “les oubliées du dimanche” (residents whom they don’t bother to visit) with false notifications that the latter have just died – ironically a way of inducing the relatives to rush to the care home! Then Justine begins to realise that foul play may have been involved in the deaths of her and Jules’ parents.
The portrayal of the care home rings true, and there are insightful portraits of some characters, observed with flashes of wry humour. Others are two-dimensional, like Roman, Hélène’s grandson, an unnerving image of Lucien with his startling “blue” gaze, too often a parody of a woman’s magazine hero.
A screenwriter and photographer, the author is focused on portraying intense repressed emotions and strong visual images. Too much is stirred into the resulting brew. Although there are sections where the narrative drags, it is mostly a page turner by reason of creating the desire “to know what happens”, although as is too often the case the denouement proves unconvincing on several counts.
I read this in French for a book group, and the fulsome praise of most reviewers leaves me feeling too much of a cynic!