“Les Déferlantes”, or “The Breakers”: all at sea

Also know in English translation as “The Breakers”, this is my review of  “Les Déferlantes” by Claudie Gallay

This is a slow-burning tale, partly the gradual revelation of a guilty secret, partly a psychological study of how members of a remote and close-knit community deal with grief and loss.

Haunted by memories of her dead partner, the narrator, whose name we never learn apart from the nickname of “La Ténébreuse” (translated as Blue!), makes the questionable decision to take a two year sabbatical (is such a luxury available in France?) from her job as biology lecturer in Avignon in order to monitor birdlife on the rocky Normandy coast of La Hague, west of Cherbourg. She finds herself tolerated but inevitably an outsider, observing the life of an isolated, inward-looking community in which almost everyone seems to be damaged in some way, sad or a little mad.

So we are introduced to her housemates, the blowsily beautiful waitress Morgane, inseparable from her pet rat, filled with Walter Mitty dreams of escape and her brother, the driven artist Raphaël, who bars the door when at work on the tortured figures of his sculptures. Then there are Morgane’s infatuated admirers, the autistic Max, obsessed with words, and the dapper Monsieur Anselme with his pet tortoises all named Chélone after the young women who refused to attend the marriage of Jupiter and Juno, another hint at the possible incest between Morgane and Raphaël. The deranged elderly Nan haunts the shore, apparently driven insane by memories of seeing her family drowned when their boat capsizes.

Perhaps the most “normal” figure is the overworked manageress of the local inn, who has to care for her senile mother. Why are the two women so estranged from Lili’s father Theo, the former lighthouse keeper, with whom the narrator forms a bond because of their common love of the birds?

Into this odd world comes Lambert, who left the village four decades earlier following the tragic loss at sea during a storm of his parents and infant brother Paul. Convinced that this was not an accident, he is intent on worming out the truth.

La Hague home territory of the celebrated writer Prévert, whom the author seems to honour through imitation in her deceptively simple yet poetic style. She employs this very effectively to create a strong sense of place: the changing colours, light and moods of the sea merging with the wide sky; the nesting birds wheeling round the rocky cliffs, and the continuous hypnotic presence of the “déferlantes”, the breaking waves.

Individuals are closely observed – one feels that the author has become a little obsessed with them, the characters in a soap opera she has conceived with a potentially endless flow of small scenes of their everyday life, punctuated with local legends. So, for instance, a chapter focus at random on the hare-lipped, fancifully named child La Cigogne playing with a present of a packet of crayons, drawing along a wall a line which is described in minute detail, like the thread of a spider’s web. The scene then moves abruptly to the heart-shaped leaves of the plant no one can name which secretes a thin layer of poison, so that the decaying bodies of unsuspecting flies, bees and butterflies pile up to nourish the soil in which they grow. This is a slightly weird novel which will engross some readers and bore others to death if it does not repel them first.

Although, at over five hundred pages, this seems at least a third too long, and I think it would have had more dramatic power if more ruthlessly edited, it is a distinctive, original and memorable novel which combines a potentially gripping mystery with skilfully captured observation of nature and human behaviour and some beautiful passages.

“The Return of the Soldier”: The truth’s the truth

This is my review of   “The Return of the Soldier”   by Rebecca West.

First published in 1918, this novella is narrated by Jenny whose cousin and childhood playmate Chris is fighting in the trenches of WW1. Even if fully aware of the sexual nature of her love for him, she accepts that it will never be returned as she spends her days living in the family home with Chris’s beautiful but apparently shallow and materialistic wife Kitty. This may also be an assessment distorted by unconscious jealousy. Kitty has spent a fortune refurbishing the house and garden along tasteful modern lines, perhaps at least in part as a distraction from her husband’s absence and the recent tragic death of their three-year-old son.

The two women are appalled to learn not only that Chris has been invalided out of active service with amnesia, but that he remembers nothing of the last fifteen years of his adult life, including his marriage, being fixated instead on a youthful love affair with Margaret Allington, of whose existence both Kitty and Jenny are totally unaware. When Margaret proves to be a frumpy married women, with no dress sense and “horrible” hands seamed and reddened with housework, the two products of a genteel, snobbish Edwardian world imagine that it will not be difficult to wean Chris away from her. The more perceptive and empathic Jenny soon realises that it may have been Margaret’s inner, mental qualities which so attracted Chris.

Beneath the ensuing envy and resentment lies the essential dilemma. Is it better to humour Chris, and let him live happily in a false situation, free from adult responsibility, or must a way be found to “cure him”, which means bringing him to face the truth, with all which that entails.

The celebrated feminist novelist and journalist Rebecca West was neither deluding herself, nor being unduly immodest, in describing this her first novel, written in her early twenties as “rather good”. Well-written and skilfully constructed, down to the ambiguous title, it has a strong sense of place and unflinching dissection of human nature, particularly of women. A C21 reader may find it dated, and feel uneasy about the snobbery which may at times be unconscious on the author’s part, although her family knew financial hardship so she understood what it was like to be poor.

However, it is gives an interesting insight with an authentic ring as to how people thought a hundred years ago, and the different social constraints of the day imposed on them. Some of the descriptions of the area round Monkey Island near Bray on the Thames are very vivid and evocative of an area before it was engulfed by urban sprawl, and the pollution from mass car ownership and Heathrow Airport.

This is the kind of book one reads quickly to see what happens, then again more slowly to appreciate the quality of the descriptions, and the deeper layers of the story, such as the author’s anger over the futile damage caused by war and the complacency of those who expect others to fight it.

Check-point by Jean-Christophe Rufin – To fight or to survive?


This is my review of Check-point by Jean-Christophe Rufin

Unsure what course to pursue, Maud is certain only of her need to avoid a conventional lifestyle and to conceal any sexual attraction beneath baggy clothes and unflattering glasses. She has joined a group of four men on a mission to transport two lorry-loads of aid to civilian victims of the war in Bosnia. Her colleagues are a diverse bunch: the pot-smoking Lionel, ill-equipped to lead the group; Alex and Marc, two ex-soldiers with experience of fighting round Krajina, their destination in Bosnia; finally, the morose middle-aged Vauthier, older than the others. The one thing these men share in common seems to be a mutual suspicion, justified in that each has a different ulterior motive for the journey. Apart from their hostility, the main source of tension is at first the succession of checkpoints which they have to cross, never quite sure what reception they will receive from soldiers who may be Serb, Croat or Bosnian Muslim – to explain their purpose, Lionel relies on repeating “pomoć”, the Bosnian for “help”.

As the plot builds up to a dramatic crescendo, with vivid descriptions of the snow-covered landscapes through which they labour, the author uses the conflict within the group as a microcosm for the destructive futile struggle in Bosnia. He develops their characters to show them wrestling with shifting emotions. Since Rufin is well-known for his international humanitarian work, it is not surprising that he also weaves in ethical debates over the pros and cons of giving aid, and the causes and effects of war. He is interested in the “mental frontiers” which have to be crossed as well as the physical checkpoints. In transporting aid, are people just salving their consciences? What do “victims” really need – to fight or to survive? How much point is there in providing food and clothing to keep them warm, when what they really want are weapons to fight the enemy, even at the risk of sacrificing their lives? Yet providing arms only feeds violence, and who is to decide on what side justice lies? Why do different groups hate each other so much?

Rufin’s novels seem quite varied in their settings and plots, but all that I have read show him to be a good storyteller, particularly in this case when he keeps the plot tight and clear. As might be expected from a writer so concerned with morality, villains seem to get their just desserts, but he does not seek to conceal the human shortcomings of the rest of the group.

My only criticism is of the rather patronising epilogue which tells us what we are supposed to make of the novel, rather than let us deduce it for ourselves, no doubt each drawing something different from it. The main point of interest in the epilogue is that the story was inspired by the author’s visit to Krajina, where he happened to note that a Bosnian refugee girl had clearly fallen in love with the young French UN soldier who was helping to protect her. I also thought that, although Rufin explores Maud’s conflicting thoughts effectively, he also shows her slipping into slightly stereotyped “female behaviour”, which I have noticed in some of his other work, but this is a small point.

Highly recommended overall.

Checkpoint by Jean-Christopher Rufin – To fight or to survive?

This is my review of  Checkpoint by Jean-Christophe Rufin

Unsure what course to pursue, Maud is certain only of her need to avoid a conventional lifestyle and to conceal any sexual attraction beneath baggy clothes and unflattering glasses. She has joined a group of four men on a mission to transport two lorry-loads of aid to civilian victims of the war in Bosnia. Her colleagues are a diverse bunch: the pot-smoking Lionel, ill-equipped to lead the group; Alex and Marc, two ex-soldiers with experience of fighting round Krajina, their destination in Bosnia; finally, the morose middle-aged Vauthier, older than the others. The one thing these men share in common seems to be a mutual suspicion, justified in that each has a different ulterior motive for the journey. Apart from their hostility, the main source of tension is at first the succession of checkpoints which they have to cross, never quite sure what reception they will receive from soldiers who may be Serb, Croat or Bosnian Muslim – to explain their purpose, Lionel relies on repeating “pomoć”, the Bosnian for “help”.

As the plot builds up to a dramatic crescendo, with vivid descriptions of the snow-covered landscapes through which they labour, the author uses the conflict within the group as a microcosm for the destructive futile struggle in Bosnia. He develops their characters to show them wrestling with shifting emotions. Since Rufin is well-known for his international humanitarian work, it is not surprising that he also weaves in ethical debates over the pros and cons of giving aid, and the causes and effects of war. He is interested in the “mental frontiers” which have to be crossed as well as the physical checkpoints. In transporting aid, are people just salving their consciences? What do “victims” really need – to fight or to survive? How much point is there in providing food and clothing to keep them warm, when what they really want are weapons to fight the enemy, even at the risk of sacrificing their lives? Yet providing arms only feeds violence, and who is to decide on what side justice lies? Why do different groups hate each other so much?

Rufin’s novels seem quite varied in their settings and plots, but all that I have read show him to be a good storyteller, particularly in this case when he keeps the plot tight and clear. As might be expected from a writer so concerned with morality, villains seem to get their just desserts, but he does not seek to conceal the human shortcomings of the rest of the group.

My only criticism is of the rather patronising epilogue which tells us what we are supposed to make of the novel, rather than let us deduce it for ourselves, no doubt each drawing something different from it. The main point of interest in the epilogue is that the story was inspired by the author’s visit to Krajina, where he happened to note that a Bosnian refugee girl had clearly fallen in love with the young French UN soldier who was helping to protect her. I also thought that, although Rufin explores Maud’s conflicting thoughts effectively, he also shows her slipping into slightly stereotyped “female behaviour”, which I have noticed in some of his other work, but this is a small point.

Highly recommended overall.

Desire by Una Silberrad – Dangerous goods


This is my review of  Desire by Una L Silberrad

First published in 1908 and recently reissued, this novel by a once popular but long forgotten novelist is on the cusp between an Edwardian viewpoint of the position of women and hints of a more emancipated state of affairs.

The unsubtly named heroine Desire’s unconventional behaviour in fashionable London society could be attributed at first to her privileged position, despite her illegitimacy, as the indulged and unrestrained  daughter of a  wealthy London-based financier. Desire’s step-mother is highly critical, mistaking her frank enjoyment of the mental stimulus of male company for flirting, but has abdicated responsibility for trying to guide or control her.

Desire is intrigued by the straightforward honesty of Peter Grimstone,  a would-be author who has managed to get a book published. She uses her connections to promote sales of the novel and is horrified when his father’s illness places Peter under the obligation to return to the provincial town of Twycross to run the family’s struggling pottery works ,  but the tables are turned when she suffers an unexpected blow and needs his help.

It seems like an attitude formed in the author’s Victorian childhood to describe as “the man side” of her nature, Desire’s decisive, assertive approach as she becomes involved in Peter’s pottery business. There may also be an autobiographical influence at work here, since Una Silberrad’s brother was a  renowned industrial chemist who discussed his ideas with her, which may have enabled her  to write confidently about Peter’s inventions for improving the production process.

There is also a somewhat inconsistent shift in the development of the two main players as the dutiful,  plodding, limited Peter is transformed into a creative, even  masterful character, while Desire becomes more of a traditional, romantic heroine, concealing her budding passion and accepting her would-be lover’s  reticence in a way the original bold Desire would never have done.

I agree with the  initial  reviews, as in “The Spectator”, which found the opening description of a London soirée too contrived and unconvincing. The portrayal of upper class London life is more endurable if assumed to be tongue in cheek, with a touch of wry humour, including Paddy the dog who lies “with his feet in the air to court further attention”.  The novel certainly takes off once the action moves to Twycross, and the world of work,  although the tendency to caricature persists in the portrayal of Peter’s scheming brother Alexander and his  unappealing gossipy wife.  There are striking contrasts in the different types of female role presented:  Desire as the “new woman” who can work on equal terms alongside a man; Peter’s mother as  the dutiful and submissive wife who devotes herself to the needs of others, asking nothing for herself as she stifles her sociability to work away in an oppressively silent house; “Mrs Alexander” who enjoys flashy material benefits in return for  being controlled and belittled by a  domineering spouse.

This novel reminded me as times of Arnold Bennet’s “Anna of the Five Towns”. It is particularly strong in the vivid descriptions of the bleak beauty of the countryside round Twycross, an antidote to the drudgery of the production line.

This is a curate’s egg of a book. Although entertaining in parts with a neatly developed if somewhat contrived plot, the novel is too long and disappointed me towards the end in seeming unable to deal with deep human emotions without slipping into purple prose or pious pontificating – a result, I suppose of the author being born in 1872, religiously devout and never married.

Losing a country; L’Art de Perdre by Alice Zeniter


 

This is my review of  L’Art de Perdre by Alice Zeniter.

This saga covering three generations of an Algerian Kabyle family whose lives are torn apart by the struggle for independence from colonial rule which forces their reluctant migration to a France prepared to give them only a grudging reception, provides the clearest insight into a piece of recent history for which the repercussions still make an impact.

The novel begins and ends with Naïma, the superficially liberated young woman employed in a Parisian gallery selling modern art. From the outset she appears unfocused, continually feeling that her life is out of control. This seems in part due to her ignorance about the “real” Algeria, of which relatives old enough to remember living there are remarkably reluctant to talk, the lack of French being a further barrier in some cases.

The book is divided into three parts, one for each generation. Returning from military service in France during World War Two, Naïma’s impoverished grandfather Ali comes across an olive press which he can use to establish a successful business, making his family one of the two richest in his village. Wary of independence movements like the ruthless FLN, Ali has no desire to collaborate with the French soldiers trying to maintain security, but when a colleague is murdered for having continued to accept a pension from France for his war service, Ali knows he no longer has a choice. The most minimal degree of cooperation with the French falsely brands Ali as a “Harki” (one of the native Algerians who fought for France in the War of Independence from 1954 to 1962), so that eventually emigration to France seems the only option.

Part Two covers Ali’s experience of making a living in France, stripped of his prosperity and status, segregated in a forest lumber camp or a grim urban apartment block, sadly estranged from his bright eldest son Hamid who takes the first opportunity to abandon what seem like the shackles of his Kabyle identity, even to the point of marrying a French girl. In Part Three, a work project provides the impetus for Naïma, who is one of Hamid’s daughters, to cross the Mediterranean to visit Algeria for herself. Will it be dangerous to visit the isolated village where some relatives still live? Will she be accepted? Will anything remain of the old way of life? Will she gain any emotional relief from the experience?

Immersed as I was in this long novel, some sentences seem too protracted and complicated, a measure perhaps of the author’s obvious intellect, as she explores in depth her characters’ varied and multi-faceted motivations and reactions to events. Alice Zeniter’s heritage as the descendant of a Harki, with an Algerian father and French mother, enables her to provide the vital hallmark of authenticity, although I have heard her declare in an interview that she does not identify particularly with Naïma, but prefers as an author to observe all her characters objectively from a slight distance.

The author is a gifted story-teller, with the power to convey a strong sense of place, and to develop realistic characters. I liked the well-chosen quotations at the start of each section (“Les jeunes n’accepteront plus ce que les parents ont accepté” – “Il n’est pas de famille qui ne soit le lieu d’un conflit de civilisations”), and the snippets of history, fruit of her obviously thorough research, are useful in explaining the background. The many different and shifting viewpoints are woven skilfully into the story, to help one understand the choices people made and the price they paid for this in each case.
The title is taken, perhaps surprisingly, from the French translation of a poem by the American poet Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art”, which contains the lines:

“The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.”

As an Algerian friend tells Naïma, “You can come to a country without belonging to it…You can lose a country…..Don’t play at being an Algerian if you don’t want to come back to Algeria, What would be the point of that?

This is the kind of novel one is sad to finish, which stays in the mind and influences one’s thinking on a subject

“Sing buried sing” by Jesmyn Ward

This is my review of “Sing Unburied Sing” by Jesmyn Ward.

This imaginative and unconventional novel links the experiences of two young black boys who suffer ingrained racial prejudice, two generations apart, in the US state of Mississippi. In the opening chapter, thirteen-year-old Jojo tries to prove he is becoming a man by helping “Pop”, his black grandfather, to slaughter and skin a goat. The explicit, unflinching description of this is a foretaste of what is to come. Jojo’s main concern is to care for his little sister Kayla, since his mother Leonie is neglectful between working long hours and “snorting crushed pills”, with his white father Michael is serving time in Parchman. This is a penitentiary in real life, notorious for its harsh treatment of black prisoners as farm labourers. The second boy, Richie, sent to Parchman when less than ten years old, is at first protected to some extent by “Pop” when also imprisoned there in his youth.

The bleakness of the accumulated circumstances, together with the tendency of two main characters to vomit as nauseam, came close to putting me off reading this, but I was drawn in by Jojo’s appealing character and the relationships between the family members. When the point of view switches to Leonie, she triggers more sympathy than one might expect, proving to be an immature mother infatuated with her partner Michael, rather than inherently evil, trapped in the vicious circle of wanting to love her children but not knowing how to show it, particularly since Jojo and Kayla have formed such a tight bond which excludes her. She is in fact traumatised, still grieving for her brother who was murdered in a racist attack.

I appreciate that the use of a first person narrative for Jojo, Leonie and Richie creates an authentic sense of immediacy and transports us directly into their thoughts, but I agree with reviewers who argue that too often their southern idioms interwoven with some vivid, quirky descriptions slip into the articulate, literary style of the author herself, which does not ring true in the context.

The theme is sufficiently powerful not to require the devices of magical realism and the ghosts which increasingly haunt the novel. Again, I can see that the title, “Sing, Unburied, Sing” reflects Jesmyn Ward’s desire to show how the suffering of past generations of slaves and exploited black Americans still burdens the present, with all its ongoing injustice, but this does not require the inclusion of ghosts, unless perhaps it is to indicate enduring superstitions.

Jesmyn Ward has a talent for creating a strong sense of place : “some kind of bad earth. Like the bayou when the water runs out after the moon or it ain’t rained and the muddy bottom, where the crawfish burrow, turns black and gummy under the blue sky and stinks”. Her lyrical prose has been compared to William Faulkner’s, but her style tends to become overblown, particularly towards the end of the book which seemed to me to run off the rails somewhat, with a rather contrived, mawkish ending. To admire this novel without major reservations, I think one has to believe in ghosts which can only be seen by those with psychic powers.