“Les Choses Humaines” by Karine Tuil – What price justice?

Much of this novel resembles a soap opera, with a cast of somewhat stereotyped characters in a formulaic world of the Paris media. Jean Farel is a celebrity TV presenter, a charismatic Rottweiler of an interviewer who entertains the public with his fearless attacks on famous politicians, yet behind his façade lies a terror of ageing and enforced retirement. To preserve his image, the separation from his much-younger high-flying journalist wife Claire has been concealed. Her new love is a Jewish teacher who has been fired from his job at a strictly orthodox school because of this affair. Meanwhile, Jean and Claire have failed to take on board the degree to which their academically brilliant son Alexandre has been emotionally damaged by his upbringing.

The plot is punctuated with reference to real-life sexual scandals, beginning with the “hook” of the Monica Lewinsky affair while Claire was supposedly employed as an intern at the White House although this may mean little to readers too young to remember the Clinton presidency. Would-be French president Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s career-destroying encounter with a hotel maid, and the attacks on young women in Cologne, supposedly by young muslim men recently given sanctuary there under Merkel’s controversial acceptance of a million refugees, underpin the theme of how men tend to exploit and abuse women, at what cost, and how society should respond.

I never grasped the relevance of the short prologue which describes the process of preparing to shoot a gun, which seems to take too far the technique of trying to “hook” the reader from the outset. Beginning Chapter 1 with some rather overblown scene-setting descriptions delivered via indigestibly overlong sentences, the drama builds gradually with a string of cliffhangers, some strong dialogues, and moments of black farce. It culminates in a court case, sensationalised by the media, over what appears to be a serious sexual crime, in which the person in the dock turns out to be not the only one on trial. Right to the last page, it paints a somewhat bleak and cynical picture of western society – at least in middle-class Paris and New York.

At times, some quite profound reflections on, for instance, the definition of rape, the penalties which should be imposed for it, and changing attitudes, as with the impact of recent movements like #MeToo and #Balance ton porc, rise up through the plot twists of a steamy soap designed to entertain. The most powerful, even moving, chapters are those where the prosecuting and defence lawyers sum up their respective cases.

I suspect that this novel may fall between more than two stools by offending some feminists on one hand, those who find some details too sordid on another, and also disappointing readers who judge the disconnection between spiced-up satire and insightful analysis too great. Although this novel did not entirely work for me, apart from providing some useful practice in reading French, it did prompt me to reexamine my own gut feelings and prejudices.

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