“Un monde à portée de main or “Painting Time” by Maylis de Kerangal

An indulged only child, Paula Karst cannot settle to any course of study until she discovers “trompe l’œil”, the visual art used to trick the eye into perceiving a painting as a three-dimensional object. She is captivated by the hallway of the Institute where she is to study (based on a real college in Brussels): the marble pillars, wooden panels, a sparrow in the foliage of the tree outside the window – all turn out to be on flat, painted surfaces.

This is an unusual, ambitious and daring novel in that it has no plot, focusing instead on Paula’s development as an artist, the details of the materials and techniques she learns to use, her various commissions and the locations where she is employed. Commencing with painting neighbour’s nursery ceiling to resemble the sky, a project her worried parents may have negotiated for her, she progresses to working eventually on “Lascaux 4”, which has combined advanced technology and the skill of artists to produce the latest replica of the famous caves so damaged by the passage of tourists and exposure to the air that it has been necessary to close them to the public.

The written style is hard work with few paragraphs and sentences which may run over more than a page of stream of consciousness, leaping frenetically between loosely linked images, present and past, merging descriptions and internal thoughts with dialogue. This approach may be quite creative in its impressionistic effect, although I was struck afterwards that it is at odds with the discipline of learning how to copy precisely patterns and colours of particular types of marble or wood, which is what Paula’s first contracts tend to involve.

I was put off by the opening chapter which catapults us into Paula’s evening out with her two former college flatmates, Kate and Jonas. They all them self-absorbed, and immature, describing their work in technical terms before one has had a chance to “tune in” to the situation. Finding the frequent lists of materials used quite tedious , and references to unfamiliar subjects meaningless, all that prevented me from giving up was the fact I had purchased the book to discuss at a French book group. It would have been much easier to read in the English version “Painting Time”, but I suspect that would lose too much in translation.

Un monde à portée de main (French Edition) by [Maylis de Kerangal]

Eventually, I found that the key to appreciating this book is to look up the references. In the process, I learned a lot about different types of marble, and wood grains. I was also fascinated by Cinecittà, the Italian Hollywood of which I was shamefully unaware. One evening, Paula looks through a gap in the wall of a former set for “it could be any medieval north Italian town”, across a wasteland to a modern Rome suburb, with its noisy car horns and lighted windows. “Which side is the real world?”

The detailed information on the Lascaux grotto is also fascinating. It is probably a minority view, but I would have preferred the author to have applied her impressive research to a non-fiction, illustrated account of all this, using the style employed to write about Lascaux, which contrasts with the overblown excess of much of the rest.

There are some striking, moving or poignant scenes involving the characters which occasionally appear like treasure chests from a shipwreck, bobbing in a sea of verbiage. For instance, the scene where Paula’s apparently brilliant but unfriendly flatmate Jonas, takes a sudden interest in her work and helps her to understand how, to paint successfully a rock like cerfontaine (otherwise known as “fromage du cochon”!), she needs to think of it in context, how it has been formed, the lives of those who have lived in the places from which it comes. Later on, Jonas and Kate are shocked by Paula’s “unwise” choice of tortoiseshell as the subject for her “final exam” painting, unaware of her beautifully described childhood encounter with a tortoise, so strange in appearance that it seemed to her fertile imagination to have come from another ancient world. The visit of Paula’s father’s to Lascaux when it was still open, which turns out to be true, provides a rare moment of humour, via the drama in which his mischievous brother almost manages to carve some graffiti alongside the priceless prehistoric paintings. Other sections, such as Paula’s liaison with a predatory teacher “the Charlatan”, seem more like padding for the novel, which at times seems meandering and uneven.

One of those books which probably needs to be read more than once to appreciate fully, despite finding it pretentious at times, I would rate it as “good in parts”.

“A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry: “A passing drama of the earth”.

In the way that “All Quiet on the Western Front” stands out by portraying the First World War from a German perspective, “A Long Long Way” is distinctive in portraying an Irish viewpoint.

The young hero Willy Dunne is eager to join up as a  means of compensating for the short stature which has made it impossible for him to join the Dublin police force, to his father’s all too evident regret. In the trenches, Willy soon experiences the squalor and tedium alternating with the terror of being the continual target of snipers and deadly gas attacks which gradually bring him to a realisation of the futility of war.

The details of the Irish political crisis which was coming to a head at the same time  are a little hard to follow without prior knowledge, but the fragmented details probably give a very accurate impression of Willy’s own limited understanding of the situation. About to board a ship at the end of a brief period of leave, Willy is caught up in the Easter Rising of 1916, the civil war which pitted rebel Irishmen against their pro-British compatriots. The sight of a young man, very like himself, dying at his feet on a Dublin street  makes a deep impression, but when he tries to express his feelings in a letter  home to his fiercely loyalist father,  the latter disowns him, unable to empathise with the evolution in attitudes that life at the front has brought about.

By turns lyrical and poetic, or filled with “a touch of the blarney” when the soldiers are joshing in the trenches to keep their spirits up,  this is probably the most explicit and visceral, “blow by blow” imagining of a young soldier’s  experiences  of World War 1 that I have read. It captures Willy’s numbed acceptance of fate: on one hand his vulnerability to being struck down at any moment, on the other his apparent indestructibility as comrades die, often before he has a chance to get to know them properly,  to be replaced by others in a seemingly endless cycle.

There is the surreal contrast of the occasional visits home where those closest to him have no inkling of the horror of the trenches. For the most part his girlfriend Gretta serves as a symbol of love and normality for him to cling to in the surreal world of war.  Even when his ordeals in the trenches are  compounded by unexpected and somewhat unjust rejection on a personal level during his final visit home,   all this is offset by one of the most moving and subtle scenes in the book, when Willy bravely makes a point of visiting the family home of Captain Pasley, his first officer in command  who sacrificed his life so pointlessly.

There were times when all seemed so bleak and graphic that I questioned whether to read on, but although the end  was something of a contrived anticlimax , “A Long, Long Way” is worth reading, particularly if one’s first encounter with a novel of the First World War.

My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok: an outstanding novel which must not be forgotten

Growing up in the New York of the nineteen fifties and sixties, Asher Lev belongs to a strict, tight-knit Jewish Hasidic community presided over by the benevolent dictatorship of the Rebbe, whose interpretation of the Master of the Universe’s wishes is not to be questioned. From an early age, Asher is obsessed with drawing every detail observed in his small world. While his gentle mother urges him to draw “pretty pictures”, and is in due course sufficiently sympathetic to buy him paints and accompany him to art galleries, until driven away by the shock of seeing “forbidden” Christian art, his serious-minded father impatiently dismisses a fad he hopes will soon pass. Frequently absent on trips to Europe where he sets up Jewish schools and helps Jews escape from Russia, he is angered by Asher’s poor grades at school and bemused by the Rebbe’s pragmatic decision to allow Asher to be taught by an eminent artist, completely secular despite being Jewish. The parents’ dawning admiration when some of Asher’s art is acquired by a major museum is outweighed by their refusal to attend any exhibition displaying his portraits of nudes.

As the novel builds to a tense climax bewildering and shocking or sadly comprehensible according to one’s viewpoint, some may find it too slow-paced. Yet the repetition reflects the narrow world in which Asher feels trapped and the often minute detail gives a profound understanding of his development as an artist and a fascinating psychological study of the main characters. It also conveys a strong sense of place, convincing dialogue, and many moments of wry humour amidst the angst.

I am not sure how a deeply orthodox Jewish reader would respond to this novel, and the author himself was intriguingly both a rabbi, inspired to become a writer by reading “Brideshead Revisited” as a teenager, and an artist. However, for an atheist reader like me, it portrays very vividly the tension between religion, ritual and duty on one hand contrasted with and tending to stifle or drive to extremes creativity and personal freedom on the other. In its perceptiveness, it shows how achievement as an artist may require a single-minded dedication which at times appears utter selfishness and self-absorption. There is also the ironic contradiction that art is often exploited for financial gain, the value of an artwork may be artificially inflated and it may be purchased as an investment or trophy by someone who cares nothing for art.

The novel draws on Potok’s own experience in that he was also a painter, like Asher producing Chagall-like portraits of dreamlike Jewish ritual scenes and animals. So Potok’s painting career somewhat paralleled the journey of Asher Lev: a young man, very creative and very religious, who does not fit with his community. “I began to paint when I was about nine or ten years old,” Potok once said in an interview. “It really became a problem in my family, especially with my father, who detested it.” Potok even painted a Brooklyn Crucifixion of his own, resembling the painting in his novel.

This reminded me of “A Tale of Love and Darkness”, the autobiography of the early life of Amos Oz, yet despite being a portrayal of fictional characters, Potok’s novel feels more authentic and and in some ways more insightful, perhaps because it is in fact an exploration and development of his own situation, than a simple account of it.

“Les oubliées du dimanche” by Valérie Perrin: overwrought?

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!

“Hamnet” by Maggie O’Farrell

Hamnet: Winner of the Women's Prize for Fiction 2020 by [Maggie O'Farrell]

This is an original and inventive take on Shakespeare’s relations with his family, whom history has it lived in Stratford while he was for the most part working in London. The playwright is described as the father of Hamnet, the husband of Agnes (better known to us as Anne), the son of John: in never naming him as Shakespeare, Maggie O’Farrell creates the freedom to take all the dramatic licence she chooses to interpret his life.

The chapter alternates between two different periods of time. Firstly, we meet Hamnet, bright eleven-year-old with a tendency to daydream, in search of an adult to look after his frail twin sister Judith who has been taken ill suddenly. Then we are switched fifteen years or so back in time to his father, an unfulfilled youth, bullied by his father, a Stratford glove-maker who has lost his good reputation through shady deals. Forced to work as a Latin tutor to help pay his father’s debts, he becomes infatuated with Agnes, an intriguing older woman who flies a kestrel hawk and is skilled in the use of herbs to cure ailments. She in turn sees something remarkable in him, the dilemma being that he can only realise his talent as a playwright in London, a place where she cannot live, ostensibly because the plague-ridden capital is too risky for Judith’s fragile health, but in reality because Agnes is only at ease in a natural world of trees, wildlife and herbs.

This is essentially an exploration of the nature of grief and how people are affected by it, with Agnes the central character. Hamnet’s role is to be the source of that grief. The back cover blurb in the paperback edition reveals the boy’s fate, perhaps on the assumption that it is common knowledge that Shakespeare’s only son died, raising the tantalising question of whether, and if so how, this tragic fact led to the production of a play called Hamlet only a few years afterwards.

Some may find the slow pace and minute detail tedious at times – as in the description of the layout of John’s house in the opening chapter, but this serves to give strong visual images of a vividly imagined Elizabethan world, as lived by ordinary people, which must have involved a good deal of research. Similarly, the focus on Agnes’s psychic powers – her ability to divine so much about a person simply by pressing the muscle between thumb and forefinger – may not appeal. Ironically, when it comes to foreseeing the future for her twins, these powers let her down. Yet, combined with a style which is often reminiscent of a folktale, the supernatural element recreates a sense of the superstition which dominated people’s lives in Tudor times, in the absence of a scientific way of explaining their situation. The presence of ghosts is easier to imagine when death is so common, and all this chimes with the magical themes running through Shakespeare’s plays including of course the ghost of Hamlet’s father.

The style is often expressive and poetic, as in the case of Anne’s hawk as first seen by “Shakespeare”: “Its stance is hunched, shrugged as if assailed by rain”. Descriptions are complemented with sharp dialogues and thoughts which reveal rounded personalities: Agnes’s surprisingly supportive brother Bartholomew, her stroppy teenage daughter Susanna, her mother-in-law Mary with whom a mutual understanding grows despite their different natures – and moments of insight and humour in all the sadness.

My main reservation is that moving passages too often seem overwritten, although I feel guilty in saying this, after reading of the acute sickness and brushes with death which the author herself and her own children have suffered. I also found the contrast somewhat jarring between her “literary” passages and those with a child’s story book repetition and turn of phrase: “Three heavy knocks to the door…..boom, boom, boom”. Admittedly, when Anne’s husband returns home unexpectedly after a long absence, and “booms in his biggest, loudest voice” this reflects his other extrovert life on the stage of the London Globe.

Overall, it is an absorbing, thought-provoking read, with even the foreknowledge of the intolerable loss of an appealing child one wants to see survive made bearable in time by the reminder or realisation that inevitable sorrow and joy are inextricably linked in life, in which all things pass.

Along with “The Plague” by Camus, this is a timely book to read during or in the aftermath of a pandemic. Perhaps recent experiences make us more attuned to the feelings of past generations who had to live with a vulnerability to disease and untimely death which we thought we had overcome.

“Under the Greenwood Tree” by Thomas Hardy: tuning his merry note

Under The Greenwood Tree by [Thomas Hardy]

On a cold and starry Christmas Eve in 1850s Wessex, or a thinly disguised rural Dorset, the Mellstock Church “Quire” of fiddlers and singers keep up the time-honoured tradition of carolling their way round the scattered hamlets of the parish, to a mixed reception. Farmer Shiner bawls at them to shut up, which only incites them to play even louder, the young vicar murmurs his thanks without getting out of bed, and pretty new schoolmistress Fancy Day poses in her window with a candle, captivating the tranter’s (carrier’s) son Dick Dewey. The course of their love affair forms the main theme, but the secondary one of the vicar’s desire to replace the quire with a modern cabinet organ to be played by none other than Fancy Day, is no less important since it reflects the changes in society which are gathering pace as old habits wither away, and strong communities are ruptured as people begin to drift to the towns for work.

There is in fact relatively little about this trend in the novel, despite Hardy’s interest in social and political matters. Having had his first novel rejected as likely to alienate readers with its radical ideas, Hardy played safe with “Under the Greenwood Tree”, intended as a “study of rural life”, the motley local characters, with their pithy, quirky observations in the local dialect, forming a humorous background to the romance. So, it forms a sharp contrast to Hardy’s subsequent gripping but progressively more bleakly tragic novels:“The Mayor of Casterbridge”; “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” and “Jude the Obscure.”

Years later, Hardy seemed to regret having written “so lightly, so farcically and flippantly at times” rather than develop a deeper study of the group of musicians, who are portrayed as somewhat two-dimensional comical characters, as indicated by the description of their silhouettes against the sky as they gather to sing at Christmas Eve. The novel is strongest in its vivid description of rural life: the closeknit community with the tranter throwing his cottage open for an uproarious Christmas party with dancing; the tolerant inclusion of the “simple-minded” Thomas Leaf, although he serves a useful purpose in being the only one able to sing a “top G”, the smoking out of the bees to gather their honey, at which Head Keeper’s daughter Fanny is still adept despite having been educated “to be a lady”. With echoes of Hardy’s poems, there are many striking images of the countryside such as the distinctive sounds made by different trees in the opening paragraph: the fir trees rock, the holly whistles and the “ash hisses amid its quiverings”.

The possibility of tragedy in the book’s climax and the final sentence with its twist of ambiguity give hints of Hardy’s darker later masterpieces.

“La Tresse ” or “The Braid” by Laetitia Colombiani: “saved by a hair’s breadth”

Like the three stands of a plait (ou tresse) the chapters focus in turn on three women who seem at first to have little in common apart from their sheer determination. A villager in Uttar Pradesh (India), Smita is a Dalit, member of the “Untouchable” cast which means that, like her mother before her, she must empty the toilets of higher caste neighbours, using the same wicker basket impregnated with the curse of its pungent odour. All that keeps her going is the dream of her small daughter Lalita breaking the vicious circle and escaping her fate by getting an education. The Brahmin teacher accepts the expected bribe to take her on, only to humiliate the little girl on the very first day. Incensed and defiant, disappointed by her husband’s refusal to leave his rut of rat-catching in the village, Smita chooses the dangerous course of travelling with Lalita to a relative in a distant city where the pair can start a new life.

The daughter of a Sicilian wig-maker in Palermo, Guilia is the only one of three sisters to take an active interest and work in the family business which she seems destined to take over in due course. Her carefree life is shattered when her robust, seemingly indestructible father is badly injured in a road accident which leaves him in a coma. Obliged to sort out some paperwork, she makes a shocking discovery. At the same time, perhaps susceptible in her grief, she embarks on an unlikely love affair.

Meanwhile in Canada, high-flying lawyer Sarah, twice married with three children largely absent from the scene because they are cared for by male nanny and factotum “Magic Ron”, takes pride in her success and is utterly confident in her sense of being in control. When confronted by a threat to her career which perhaps she should have foreseen, which cannot be managed and contained through sheer willpower, how will she cope?
This is easy to read and plot-driven, but the continual switching between apparently unconnected storylines is somewhat jarring, at the same time serving to increase suspense over how, if at all, they will converge at the end and masking a thinness in Guilia’s and Sarah’s tales. I would have found it a more satisfying read if presented as three separate short novellas, although I accept this would have weakened the “Eureka” moment of realising what links the three women. Smita’s tale seems to me the most fully developed and engaging, perhaps because there is a stronger sense of place and portrayal of a (to me) unfamiliar, distinctive culture as she travels towards her goal.

Since the author is a scriptwriter and film-maker, I assumed this novel was written from the outset with adaption to the screen in mind*. At a recent interview, the author was adamant this was not the case. This was partly because she wanted the freedom of not needing to think about the cost of, for instance, choosing specific widely distant locations. She acknowledged that her books are regarded as cinematographic, which she explained as meaning based on situations one can visualise, like Smita and her daughter travelling on an overcrowded train for the first time, rather than relying heavily on description of people or dialogues. On the other hand, perhaps because of the author’s scriptwriting background, the style is for me the weakest factor – by turns heavy on exposition, or unduly sentimental in tone. The strength of the stories lies in the dramatic incidents and changing emotions of the characters.

*At the time of writing this, both of her first two novels have been or are in the process of being filmed.

“Ru” by Kim Thuy: hypnotic memories in a waking dream

Born to a wealthy family during the 1968 Tet Offensive when the North Vietnamese communists launched their surprise attacks on the South during the Lunar New Year festivities, mingling machine gun fire with firecrackers, Kim Thuy has drawn on her own experiences to produce this fictionalised memoir. Half the family is home partitioned off with a brick wall to be taken over by communist soldiers who spy on them continuously. Their wealth in the form of diamonds inserted in the pink plastic of dental prosthetics, the narrator’s family joins the flood of boat people, passing via a muddy Malaysian camp to Canada which has extended a generous welcome to many Vietnamese refugees. Years later, as a naturalised Canadian, she is able to revisit her country of origin to reevaluate it from a westernised perspective.

At first, certain aspects of the evidently original and distinctive style irritated me. I felt somewhat cheated by the mainly one page chapters, often more than fifty per cent white space. The way they flitted back and forth in time made it hard to keep characters in mind and grasp the order of events. It is difficult to refer back to points quickly unless one is using a Kindle! I found it easier to read once I had accepted the novel as a series of anecdotes, often poetic, with a rhythmic, hypnotic quality, the white space encouraging a pause for reflection, the underlying aim being to mirror how memory works in fragmented, jumbled recollections.

“Ru”, a French word which can mean “Flow”, seems a more apt title than “Ru” in the sense of “Lullaby”, many memories being quite brutal or harrowing, mixed with beauty, humour or banality. This may render them all the more shocking, in seeming unreal while manifestly true. For instance, Mr. An, met in Canada, is still traumatised by the Russian roulette played by the Communist soldiers, causing him to observe for the first time the varied shades of blue in the sky he thought he was seeing for the last time. The narrator’s objectivity in describing such things is a way of coping with suffering and loss. Yet is it also at the price of making the reader feel too disengaged as well?

Despite their brevity, the paragraphs need to be read slowly, with concentration, because they are so full of images which evoke yet further ones. Each reader will draw something different from the myriad of impressions. Perhaps because they give insights into a different culture, I found the passages on Vietnam the most striking and moving – the nostalgic image of a past tradition, in which old ladies in a boat on a small lake place tea leaves in lotus flowers for them to absorb their scent during the night.

Then there is Aunt Five (the Vietnamese name their family members by number), a spinster who has dedicated her life to her parents. Rewarded after their death by being driven out of the house, she takes refuge in a hut near a Buddhist temple, virtually her sole possession being the four bowls in which she gave her old father his daily rice. These blue and white bowls with silver rims, partly translucent when held up to the sunlight, are a symbol of a lost way of life.

There is subtlety in the anecdote of the refugee boys machining clothes in a Quebec garage after school to earn some pocket money, who recall the dark period in Vietnam when they were abused by men in for the price of a bowl of soup. Yet their ability to maintain a kind of innocence, divorced from the sordid deeds of adults, and become balanced young men, Canadian engineers, is an affirmation of human resilience.

Kim Thuy evokes our empathy with the refugees, and a sense of how having been uprooted from one culture, they inevitably retain a nostalgia for certain aspects of it, some fated to occupy a kind of limbo, unable to shed a sense of disconnection from the host country, no matter how well they appear to have integrated into it: “one horizon always conceals another…… one advances through life in the footsteps of those who have gone before, in a kind of waking dream”.

“Slow horses” by Mick Herron: “practise to deceive”

“Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough
It isn’t fit for humans now,
There isn’t grass to graze a cow
Swarm over, Death!”

This well-known attack on Slough by John Betjeman is the source of the name Slough House, in turn easily corrupted into “Slow horses”, the derogatory nickname of disgraced MI5 intelligence officers sent to work there on pointless tasks, until they are driven to leave the service at no further cost to the organisation. The particular failure of their slovenly, foul-mouthed boss Jackson Lamb has not been disclosed, but for his hapless underlings it ranges from leaving a highly confidential computer disc on the Tube, handed in at the BBC, to making a careless error when tailing a suicide bomber at Kings Cross, resulting in massive and costly damage. This was bad enough for River Cartwright to be sacked, but for the string-pulling of his grandfather, retired spook the “OB” which turns out to mean the “Old Boy”.

The narrative starts slowly, setting the scene and filling in the backgrounds of the main characters, but it is always vital to pay close attention, particularly in view of the author’s penchant for making an incident clear only after the event. Matters hot up when a young man is kidnapped by extremists who threaten on camera to behead him but nothing is as it first seems in this increasingly tangled plot. Mick Herron does not baulk at killing characters off, both good and bad, which serves to raise the suspense. As the slow horses get embroiled in some unintended consequences and real action, will then end up as scapegoats or heroes?

With shades of John le Carré and Raymond Chandler, I found this book a page turner by reason of the plot twists, wry humour and cynical comments on our society. Some readers may disagree if they are put off by a tendency to repetition, long-windedness, implausible moments and points which remain frustratingly unclear (perhaps a few loose ends are to be picked up in a sequel). The ambitious politician Peter Judd is an obvious parody of Boris Johnson, but is it wise to bring in current named celebrities whose names may not mean much in a few years? For instance, Jackson Lamb is described as “Timothy Spall gone to seed (which left open the question of what Timothy Spall not gone to seed might look like)”.

I found some aspects of the final denouement confusing, too rushed and something of an anticlimax. Perhaps it is a pitfall for elaborate plotters to run out of steam for a mind-blowing revelation at the end.

“Slow Horses” is the first of seven full-length novels in a series as at 2021. I believe it is best to read these chronologically, not least in order to understand the allusions in the successive books. I may read one or two more in a while, but fear they might prove “too much of the same”.

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.