“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”.

“Mon Traître” by Sorj Chalandon – Still looking for answers

This novel is the memoir of Parisian violin-maker and repairer Antoine or “Tony” who in the 1970s, is inspired, by the photo of an Irish patriot shot by the British in the 1916 Easter Rising, to become passionately involved in the IRA cause, about which he previously knew nothing.  So he bones up on Irish history,  assumes a taste for Guinness, and works his way into the Belfast Catholic community with the aid of one-time gun-runner Jim O’Leary, willing to offer him hospitality on tap. This brings him into contact with Tyrone Meehan, a charismatic IRA leader who in turn takes a shine to him. We know from the outset that Meehan is the “traitor” of the title, so the intriguing mystery lies in the nature of the betrayal, and the reasons for it.

Having read and greatly admired two of Sorj Chalandon’s books, “Le Quatrième Mur” and “Profession de Père”,  I was disappointed by “Mon Traître” for a number of reasons. It is hard to understand why Tony is so drawn to a Belfast he describes as having “cet air épais de tourbe et de charbon” – this thick air of peat and coal, the same in winter, automn, even in summer with the freezing rain, and the distinctive odour of burning hearths, children’s milk, earth, frying food and humidity. Why is he so enamoured by a man  so bent at their first meeting on showing him how to use a urinal without wetting his shoes? In turn, what does Meehan see in “Tony”, a man who comes across as an “oddball” loner, naïf and, as several incidents suggest, mentally unstable? Sporting his symbolic Irish Claddagh ring  and spending hours  at the wake beside the open coffin of Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands, Tony seems desperate to gain a sense of belonging to a cause which is not his own.

There is a lack of depth in the tale which seems to romanticise the IRA, with the Protestants and British soldiers cast as villains,  and to show no awareness of an alternative viewpoint, apart from a single reference to the youth of a murdered soldier. The ultimate disappointment for me was the fact that, once Meehan’s treachery to his cause is exposed, the book focuses on  Tony’s own sense of bewilderment, anger and personal betrayal. There is no exploration or convincing explanation of Meehan’s behaviour.

My Traitor by [Sorj Chalandon]

Since the story did not ring true to me, I was surprised and perhaps chastened to learn it is based on reality  in that Sorj Chalandon, when employed as a journalist in Ireland, actually formed a strong friendship with Denis Donaldson, a senior Sinn Féin member who was revealed as a British secret agent, subsequently assassinated after his treachery was exposed.  Chalandon wrote this book while he was still alive, in a sense coming to terms with his own emotions. A few years later, following Donaldson’s death, he produced a sequel, “Return to Killybegs”, from Tyrone Meehan’s perspective.

From a “dramatic” viewpoint, I would have preferred a single book interweaving the contrasting stances,  but it is helpful to understand the background to the two novels. Chalandon is a talented writer   who creates a strong sense of place and portrays conflicted emotions,  drawing on real  people and events about which he clearly feels deeply, but in this instance he does not provide any fresh insights. Was I more impressed by his other works because they  are based on situations about which I know less?

“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!

“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”.

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.

Rose by Tatiana de Rosnay: Warped Vision

Rose (French Edition) by [Tatiana de Rosnay, Raymond Clarinard]

It is well-known how the ambitious “beaver” Baron Haussmann implemented Emperor Napoleon III’s vision of a modernised Paris. Elegant C19 classical boulevards replaced insanitary slums and overcrowded alleys dating from medieval times. On reflection, the wide new avenues must also have required the demolition of sound buildings, some of historic interest, destroying close-knit, thriving communities in the process. Not all the 350,000 people displaced needed to be rehoused, or benefited from the upheaval.

Rose Bazelet, the heroine of this novel, is one such person. Living her entire life in central Paris, mostly in the family home of her husband in the Rue Childebert, of which photographs can still be found on the internet, she fondly imagines that her house will be protected by its proximity to the ancient Church of St Germain-des-Prés. It is a shock to the whole community when the letters arrive, bluntly announcing the planned demolition of their properties. All resign themselves to accepting the compensation offered to go and start a new life, as Rose’s own brother has already done in another district already razed for redevelopment. Unable to leave a house suffused with memories of her husband and son, Rose has other plans, so we find her hiding in the basement, reading treasured letters, revisiting her past life, and writing a few unexpected confessions to the husband to whom she still feels exceptionally close a decade after this premature death.

This novel is at its best in powerful descriptions of the vast building sites which resemble war zones, where all the old landmarks have be obliterated, leaving only gigantic holes bordered by unstable ruins with hanging strips of wallpaper, doors swinging on hinges and steps spiralling into a void – hallucinatory images. The author weaves the main points in Rose’s essentially narrow bourgeois life with actual historical events: the painful birth of the daughter Violette with whom she never manages to bond takes place against the backdrop of street riots, part of the July 1830 uprising to oust the Bourbon king Charles X. The bookseller who rents a premise on her ground floor introduces the widowed Rose to the best-selling book at first considered such an outrage to public morals and religions that its publication was blocked: Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary”, no less. The pervading sense of nostalgia, both for a lost community and way of life, mingled with longing for those one has loved, is very strong. We also see how Rose’s personality develops in later life, as her experiences make her both more open minded and self aware.

This may be too saccharine and mawkish at times for some tastes, although it could be argued that the tone is authentic for a C19 woman who has led an essentially sheltered, conventional, comfortable life with limited experience and education. However, a sudden switch to the shocking or macabre, perhaps when least expected, adds some depth and bite to the tale.

I was for the most past irritated by Rose’s inability to accept reality like everyone else, and move on. However, apart from the fact that the plot obviously depends on this, I have to admit that Tatiana de Rosnay succeeds in evoking empathy with Rose rather than simply regarding her as self-absorbed, even selfish. A final twist also adds to the aspects for discussion which make this a fruitful choice for a book group. I read it in French translated from English (the author is Anglo-French), which gave it a more authentic feel.

Où bat le cœur du monde by Philippe Hayat – Where the world’s heart beats or escaping through music

In 1930s Tunisia, still a French colony, Darius Zaken’s pious father plans to leave the Tunis ghetto to set up his bookshop in the modern French quarter where his son can attend the lycée. An appalling incident shatters his dreams, leaving Darius lame and too traumatised to speak. Against the odds, his mother Stella dedicates her life to his getting a good education which will lead to a professional job in mainland France, but a chance meeting with a spoilt rich girl called Lou gives him other ideas. Taking him under her wing, she introduces him to the louche world of jazz, and he develops a passion for the jazz clarinet, for which he has a remarkable talent. To his bewildered mother, jazz is a meaningless cacophony.

With the onset of World War Two, the arrival in Tunis of black American jazz musicians attached to the US Army gives Darius the change to slip away to the United States. Here he can realise his talent eventually, but in a harsh world of prejudice and segregation, where jazz is regarded as the preserve of the black population, and many of the most talented musicians addicted to drink, heroin and cocaine. A sensitive soul, Darius attracts the sympathy of a succession of women: his mother, Lou and ultimately Dinah, an astute black American.

Focusing on the first part of Darius’s life, when he is striving to succeed, this novel is episodic, leaving the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps. Philippe Hayat succeeds in conveying a sense of the appeal of jazz, even to someone like me who does not care much for it, but his descriptions tend to be too long, repetitious and overtechnical. I was prompted to look up the parts of a clarinet, the nature of a ride cymbal, the meanings of various musical terms like “anatole”, chabada or Lydian scale, together with researching the lives of celebrities who inspired Darius and in time actually played with him: Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young, Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday who proved as tragically troubled in their often too short lives as Hayat describes.

This novel has a strong sense of place, be it interwar Tunis, Sicily under the WW2 Allied invasion, or postwar New York. The complex mother-son bond between Stella and Darius is well-described and moving. There are some striking, powerful dramatic scenes.

On the downside, the narrative drive is undermined by too many passages which are overlong and frankly dull. There are a few digressions too ludicrous to ring true, like the brothel where Darius is employed to play his clarinet to clients through holes in the wall through which he can view them, or Stella’s employment at a bank where she somehow becomes a financial expert in record time. Is a loss of speech through shock likely to be permanent? It is of course symbolic in that Darius expresses his emotions through the international language of music instead.

The plot structure seems weak. The opening chapter showing Darius as an old man giving his last performance, aided by the faithful Dinah, is not an engaging start, not least because we have yet to learn their backstories, and also destroys any dramatic tension since one knows from the outset that Darius will succeed.

In short, parts of this book are excellent but one has to wade through some dull passages to find them.

Six Fourmis Blanches by Sandrine Collette – Tempting Fate

Six fourmis blanches (Sueurs froides) (French Edition) by [Sandrine Collette]

In an isolated Albanian mountain valley steeped in superstition and reputed to be cursed, Matthias is believed to have inherited the gift of keeping bad luck at bay before a wedding or suchlike, by choosing a suitable goat to hurl as a sacrifice from a high point to appease evil spirits – this is not a book for animal lovers. Despite the respect, even wary awe in which he is held, when Matthias inadvertently falls foul of the local mafia-style boss Carche, his only option is to abandon everything and go on the run.

The parallel storyline which will eventually converge with it, starts out in a much lighter vein. Lou and her partner Elias, a pair of young urban French professionals, follow an impulse to spend a long weekend trekking in the Albanian mountains in early spring in the company of four other compatriots whom they barely know, led by Vigan, a hardy-looking local guide who inspires confidence and is even fancied a bit by the two women in the group. After a day of idyllic wandering, the walkers wake to a world transformed by a freezing blizzard. The novel becomes a psychological thriller in which they are challenged beyond their capacities both physically and mentally by the forces of nature and an unrelenting sequence of mishaps. The group members prove all too human in their flaws, apart from the almost saintly Elias.

The author is skilful in creating a powerful sense of the intense cold, the mood swings between giving up and fighting on against the odds, the changed perceptions in which malign spirits and devils suddenly do not seem so preposterous, the dilemma between instinctively saving oneself and cooperating in risky efforts to save others. In a thriller which does not flinch from the macabre, it is not at all clear until the last page, and possibly even then, who will survive and how.

This novel works on two levels: both as a well-plotted page-turner thriller with a strong sense of place (admittedly frequently far-fetched, particularly the dénouement, but that is par for the course in this genre) and also a perceptive in-depth study of character in the case of the alternating narrators, Matthias and Lou.

I read this in the original French and imagine it would need a good translator to pack the same punch in English.

La Daronne or The Godmother by Hannelore Cayre: “The sins of the fathers”

Widowed young, now in her fifties, the misnamed narrator Patience finds that her work as an Arab interpreter/translator for the Paris judiciary does not pay enough to cover the care home costs for her demanding aged mother. Listening to the recorded conversations of suspected Arab drug dealers under police surveillance, her imagination is caught by a close-knit Moroccan family who have switched from legal farming to growing high grade khardala, or hashish, and when she knows that a stash of this has been hidden to evade near Paris to evade a police search, temptation proves too great.

Can she find the precise location of the drug, aided by DNA (ADN in the original French), a retired police sniffer dog she has saved from the standard fate of euthanasia when no longer useful? Will she succeed in selling the drug on and laundering the proceeds without being either detected by the police, including the senior office Philippe who happens to be her lover, or exposing herself to the vengeance of thwarted dealers?

Apart from being a crime thriller which depends too heavily on coincidences and glosses over plot flaws, this is also a psychological study of a somewhat cold, calculating woman, lacking in empathy, who on her own admission has no friends, only acquaintances, since she makes no effort to hide her impatience with people she finds slow or boring. Apparently only capable of feeling love for her dead husband or dumb animals – the first luxury she buys with her illgotten games is an expensive collar for DNA – she is secretly repelled by Philippe’s lovemaking and displays a troubling lack of compassion for her mother. Has her personality been moulded by an amoral, emotionally deprived upbringing with her criminal wheeler-dealer Tunisian father and Jewish mother traumatised by time spent in a concentration camp? Apart from holidays in luxury hotels abroad, Patience grew up on a property next to a motorway, where unwelcome intruders were shot down by her father, to be buried in a corner plot where the grass grew abnormally green, fed by a phosphate-filled soil – a typical macabre allusion.

Patience’s cynicism can be amusing, as when she cites Philippe’s great fault: he believes in God. “If he’d told me he believed in a human destiny governed by a plate of celestial noodles, I couldn’t have found it more ridiculous”. She is acutely aware of the irony of situation: criminalisation of cannabis stimulates “the web-of drug-taking which drowns France” on one hand, and costly legal action on the other, as the police and lawyers pursue the dealers who are selling drugs for inflated prices to their children. Still, at least it creates employment.

The pace seems quite uneven, with abrupt digressions into Patience’s past life interrupting the narrative flow. Tedious detail at some points contrasts with overly rapid treatment of the occasional highly dramatic incidents at others. Most of the characters seem too highly exaggerated to be either convincing or engaging. The result is a patchy black farce which sits oddly with potentially moving explorations of human nature.

“La Daronne”, meaning “mother” or “boss lady” in French was presumably translated as “The Godmother” in the mafia sense of the word. Seemingly written with a film in mind, it has been dramatised with the title “Mama Weed” and Isabelle Huppert in the lead. Is this the kind of book which “works better” in the visual images of a film, perhaps losing some complexity in the process?