“Violeta” by Isabel Allende: a testament of age

Inveterate storyteller Isabel Allende’s “Violeta” resembles her previous novel “A Long Petal of the Sea” in recounting the main character’s long life against a background of turbulent social and political change in Chile.

Violeta writes towards the end, “I was born in 1920, during the influenza pandemic, and I’m going to die in 2020, during the outbreak of coronavirus”. A spoilt child in a prosperous family, Violeta is “sorted out” by her governess Miss Taylor, a young Catholic woman from Ireland, one of the first in a series of insufficiently developed and not always totally convincing characters. When her father’s rash approach to financing his businesses reduces him to bankruptcy and suicide, his family has to decamp to a remote rural area to avoid the shame, and make ends meet. The impoverished lives of the local people fail to awaken Violeta’s social conscience at this stage. Instead, she grows up to demonstrate a shrewder business sense than her father, and forsakes a decent but dull husband to run off with Julian Bravo, a charismatic pilot, who proves to be a rogue. And so she is caught up in a personal family drama while Chile moves from a Socialist experiment dubbed Communist, to a vicious fascist dictatorship designed to repress it.

Although written in conventional chapters, the novel purports to be in the form of a letter which Violeta writes to a younger man called Camilo, whose identity is not revealed until near the end. This device proves the novel’s main flaw, in that the meandering recollections lead to “telling” rather than “showing”, and past events are stripped of their dramatic tensions. Writing in the first person limits Violeta’s ability to portray scenes where she was not present, so descriptions of scenes, emotions, or reported conversations do not ring true and fail to grip or move us as they could.

I am not sure whether it is Isabel Allende’s intention, but for much of the novel, Violeta reveals herself to be a self-centred character, who continually exploits others for her own ends. There always seems to be some obliging woman around to perform the chores she dislikes. Although she grows to despise him, Violeta relies on Julian Bravo’s dubious connections to get their son out of the clutches of the dictatorship, but goes on to engineer his downfall, trading on the knowledge that he will never suspect her of this. Describing her business success to Camilo, she casually mentions profiteering from those forced to flee the regime, by purchasing their properties cheaply in order to sell them for much more later. It takes the proof of the regime’s murder of someone she loves to convert her, late in life, to spending her wealth on good causes.

Many readers will probably accept the novel’s rambling structure, and it may serve to raise awareness of Chile, a beautiful yet troubled land. Although the subject matter is potentially interesting, a tighter focus on fewer strands and characters would have made for a more satisfying read.

La promesse de l’aube (Promise at Dawn) by Romain Gary: when fact needs no fiction

Romain Gary was a popular and prolific author, the only writer to win Le prix Goncourt a second time, by dint of assuming the pen name Émile Ajar, an imaginary person whom he persuaded a young relative to impersonate. The deception was not revealed until after his death.

This autobiography proves to be a version of his childhood and wartime experience as an airman in which it is impossible to distinguish embellished fact from fiction. Its central theme is the intense relationship with his mother, a volatile, overemotional former actress of Russian-Jewish descent. Abandoned by her husband between the two World Wars, she was obliged to slave away at a variety of jobs, from flogging fake jewellery at one extreme to running a successful upmarket dressmaking salon and later managing a hotel at the other.

As her son came to realise, all her frustrated ambition was channelled into him. From an early age, she parroted her unfailing belief that he would become famous, the only question being in what field. A fortune was spent equipping him with skills as a musician or singer, until his lack of talent became undeniable. Instruction in riding, fencing and shooting came into play. Painting was discouraged since she viewed artists as generally penniless and often syphilitic. She condoned her son’s desire to become a writer, but predicted the only remaining areas of achievement she could conceive: to become a great soldier, or a diplomat. In due course, Romain was decorated for his wartime service, and gained employment as an ambassador, thus providing evidence for the importance of having unfailing belief in one’s children and encouraging them to aspire to great things – but in this case, at what cost?

There was a further self-serving aspect of his mother’s love. Struck by his resemblance to a former lover (his real father?), she constantly urged him to look upwards in a certain manner. Even as a small boy, dressed in the silk shirts and velvet suits from a previous age to accompany her to the opera, he was instructed in all the etiquette required to be her future escort, in the absence of a husband.

It is astonishing that he did not become the laughing stock of his peers and emotionally damaged by all this. Yet perhaps he was. Apart from the many occasions when he was embarrassed by his mother’s effusive love, or furious over being obliged to depend on her financially while he was trying to write his masterpiece, when she became seriously ill, he was clearly stressed by the need to succeed while she was still alive, all the more difficult since World War ll had broken out. His emotional ties to his mother ran so deep that he even described her as if physically present, by turns approving and admonishing, during his wartime spell with the Free French in Africa.

The novel is packed with amusing, if far-fetched anecdotes. As a small boy seeking to impress eight-year-old Valentine, did he actually consume snails in their shells, and chunks of his own rubber sandals, which landed him in hospital? Did he and the rival for her affections really take turns to push each other onto a fourth floor window with just sufficient pressure to swing their legs over the edge, without falling to a certain death? Meeting by chance years later, both by then diplomats, was he really on the point of repeating this mad exploit, just before he was fortunately called away?

There is a brilliant description of his mother, in her role of hotel manager in Nice, terrorising the stallholders on her daily visit to the marché de la Buffa, a she passes judgement on their produce: elle “tâtait une escalope, méditait sur l’âme d’un melon, rejetait avec mépris une pièce de bœuf dont flop mou sur le marbre prenait un accent d’humiliation” and so on.

Yet this account of a life sufficiently interesting not to require any spicing up soon began to pall owing to the repetition, the verbosity, the odd mixture of exaggerated self-denigration and conceit, the frequent digression into an issue like his need to achieve, expounded in a paragraph of two pages or more of overblown prose. All this made for an exhausting read.

If it is to your taste, and you can stomach Gary’s somewhat sexist behaviour, which is what some reviewers may mean when describing the book as “dated”, you can read this to be entertained by the succession of implausible and at times unsavoury vignettes and exploits. I am most intrigued by the psychology behind all this. He wrote, to quote the English translation, “I do not often indulge in lying, because, for me, a lie has a sickly flavour of impotence: it leaves me too far away from the mark.” Yet the account is full of lies and deceptions, which he may have slipped into as a way of dealing with his mother’s overpowering love and belief that France was the model land where he would succeed.

It is hard to know how much he was traumatised by the shocking death rate amongst his fellow wartime pilots. Despite observing more than once how, no matter how bad things are, he keeps smiling, this is the man who, at the age of sixty-eight, decided to shoot himself fatally.

“A Long Petal of the Sea”: telling history by Isabel Allende

A lesser known aspect of the complicated Spanish Civil War is that, as half a million dissidents streamed over the Pyrenees into France to escape Franco’s fascist regime, the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda arranged for “The Winnipeg”, an old cargo ship, to carry two thousand of them to Chile where they docked on the day the Second World War was declared in Europe.

A subsequent friendship with Victor Per, one of the passengers, inspired Isabel Allende to write this novel, based on his memories. Although described as a fictional account, it is unclear exactly what has been invented, particularly since the author has her hero Victor Dalmau form friendships with real people like Neruda himself, and her own relative, one-time President Allende.

Like “Victor Dalmau”, did the “real” Victor actually save a severely wounded soldier by gently massaging his heart with his fingers? Did he agree to marry his brother’s pregnant girlfriend after he was killed in battle, to enable her to escape to a new life in Chile?

Although this novel is quite readable, and I learned some interesting history in the process, I never felt fully engaged. The characters appear somewhat two-dimensional, revealing no more than what the narrator tells us about them. The plot seems fragmented and unfocused, no doubt through the need to cover several decades of a lifetime. Victor and his wife Roser are clearly very successful, possibly like the author and those she is accustomed to mixing with, and they rub along together quite well. Victor becomes a respected doctor, and his wife a successful musician, but we never really learn the process by which this occurred. They both have affairs in their open marriage, without the friction or tension one might expect. When Chile swings to the right under Pinochet’s harsh regime, Dalmau is denounced by a neighbour and spends time in a concentration camp. Even such a dramatic situation as this is covered briefly in a fairly matter of fact way.

As others have observed, the slices of history based on research sit alongside the fictionalised relationships. I would have preferred a shorter novel showing more about how the couple achieved success in a new country, with more emotional involvement between the characters, and scenes on which I could reflect, and draw my own conclusions about their relationships.

This may be a minority view, since the novel has been very well received.

L’Enfant de Noé (Noah’s Child) par Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt: The Art of Survival

Six-year-old Joseph’s carefree life in Brussels is shattered when his mother hears rumours of an imminent Nazi round-up of Jewish families in the neigbourhood. A means of escape comes in the form of the wily, eccentric Catholic priest, Father Pons who procures false papers to enable Joseph to be concealed in an orphanage, the Villa Jaune.

This short novel is part of a series, “The Cycle of the Invisible”, which explore religious themes from a child’s viewpoint, in this case the links between Christianity and Judaism in a situation where followers of the former are perpetrating the terrible crimes of the Shoah, or genocide, against the latter.
What could prove unbearably grim is leavened by the author’s fertile imagination and dry wit, as when Father Pons muses whether it would have been better for him to be Jewish, causing Joseph to insist, “Stay Christian, you don’t realise how lucky you are!” The priest explains that the Jewish insistence on respect is more practical than the Christian emphasis on love, demanding, “Would you turn the other cheek to Hitler?”

Despite the widepread popularity of Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s novels and short stories, I find myself in ageement with a reviewer who suggests that the author has augmented his sales by producing short novels of less than a hundred pages, with tear-jerking themes, leaving the reader crushed beneath an “avalanche” of worthy sentiments, with a vague sense of guilt over expressing any criticism on this score.
Perhaps because I read this in a French edition designed for students, with “tricky” words defined, comprehension questions and background analysis, this seems like a book written for adolescents, to raise their awareness of the Holocaust, and grasp its impact on those who survived it. Particularly if viewed from an adult perspective, some scenes appear too far-fetched, such as the priest’s implausible scheme to hide the Jewish children when the Gestapo finally came to arrest them. Some descriptions seem too exaggerated as in the opening description of the parlous state of Joseph’s footwear.
Despite his understandable naivety, Joseph often seems too advanced for his age, as he plays the role of confidant to Father Pons, and mentor for the shamblng Rudy, ten years his senior in age. Joseph’s relationship with the priest sometimes seem too mawkishly sentimental.

The most interesting part of the novel for me was the final part with its focus on the unexpected problems of dealing with the sudden freedom of liberation, and the problems of returning to a “normal” family life and switching back from an assumed Christian to a practising Jewish life. Unfortunately, the final section appears too rushed and underdeveloped, as if the author is anxious to move on to another project. The device of Joseph eventually following in Father Pons’ footsteps, marking the modern-day Israel-Palestinian conflict by collecting two items- a Jewish kippah and Arab scarf left behind after a fight – is a little corny, but makes for a neat ending.

I found the author’s tone in an interview which concluded my edition somewhat condescending and pretentious: “the novelist makes a contract with the reader, he tells him ‘I’m going to interest you, take you by the hand and lead you on a voyage that you will not make without me; you will come across new places, unfamiliar, which perhaps frighten you, but have confidence, I will not let go of your hand and perhaps you will thank me on arrival. Courageous, delicate and firm, such must be the grip of the storyteller.’ ”

“Aux animaux la guerre! by Nicolas Mathieu – “Of Fangs and Talons”! – in the wake of Émile Zola?

In the Vosges, an economically depressed part of north-east of France, the loss-making Velocia car plant is due to close, adding to the problems of union leader Martel who has been embezzling funds to pay for his mother’s care home. Desperate for money, he takes the unwise step of joining with Bruno, a coke-snorting bodybuilder on a temporary contract at Velocia, to kidnap a girl on behalf of the Benbarek brothers, a pair of ruthless gangsters. Predictably, the plan goes awry.

Available in English as “Of Fangs and Talons”, in its original form the novel is a challenge for a non-French reader, by reason of the large amount of slang and colloquial speech. The initial scenes are not in chronological order, which adds to the confusion. “I owe as much to Proust as to the Sopranos”, Nicolas Mathieu has observed in an interview. By this, I assume he is referring to the lengthy passages devoted to minor events or everyday situations described in minute detail, as opposed to those of extreme, often gratuitous violence. He also seems fascinated by the psychology of bored, disaffected teenagers, whom he portrays rather well. Overall, he is clearly more interested in character, ambiance, an ironic take on the inequalities, injustices and prejudices of modern French society, than in plot.

The prologue set decades earlier in the Algeria of 1961 is presumably meant to provide the usual overused hook of violence in the form of the brutal execution of those suspected of involvement in the movement for independence from France. This has little relevance to the rest of the novel, except to indicate the unflinching lengths to which some of the characters will be prepared to go. The fragmented structure of the novel results in some major incidents being implied, or never made clear. Some banal scenes make frustrating reading since they break the dramatic tension, although in the case of the most brutal events this could be a relief. The inconclusive ending may be a stroke of genius in reflecting what real life so often turns out to be, while paving the way for a sequel, or perhaps it is simply a disappointing “cop-out”.

The debut novel of an author who went on to win le prix Goncourt for “Leurs enfants après eux”, “Aux animaux la guerre” has been made into a French TV series. I imagine the latter might “work better” in dramatic terms, but perhaps lose some of the irony which is the saving grace of this bleak, overlong novel.

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev: “Standing on the threshold of the future”

Image dans Infobox.
Jeantaud, Linet et Lainé by Edgar Dégas 1871

It is hard to believe that when published in 1862, Turgenev’s “Fathers and Sons” caused such a storm of “virulent attacks” in Russia: “each generation found the picture of the other very life-like, but their own badly drawn”. In the novel, the usual generational differences are heightened by the abrupt change from the repressive regime of Tsar Nicholas I to the more liberal rule of Alexander II who has permitted the “emancipation” of the serfs, together with a climate of greater freedom of expression in which intellectual rebels like the novel’s anti-hero Bazarov, a “socially inferior” doctor’s son, feels no inhibitions about getting embroiled in fierce arguments with Pavel Petrovich, a minor noble with rigid conservative views.

Turgenev displays a gift for observing human nature which still rings true despite the passage of time and massive changes in society. Bazarov, an unconventional medical student who prides himself on being a nihilist “who bows down to no authority, who takes no single principle on trust”, no matter how respected it is, reminds me of a passionate Extinction Rebellion supporter. His nihilism leaves him totally ill-equipped when it comes to knowing how to deal with being in love.

His gentle friend Arkady is typical of an open-minded young man struggling to form ideas, who is susceptible to the influence of an opinionated friend, until he begins to question his ideas as too extreme. Arkady’s father Nicolay Petrovich, the tolerant and well-intentioned owner of a rundown country estate in desperate need of modernisation, is generally regarded as a soft touch, taken advantage of by the peasants on his land.

Bazarov is by turns boorish and unexpectedly kind. He is brusque with his doting parents, but inspires trust in “the humblest of people”, as when, in one of the many humorous moments, he explains to a couple of farm boys why he is collecting frogs to dissect, “..as you and I are just like frogs….I’ll know what goes on inside us…So as not to make a mistake if you become ill and I have to look after you”.

On the surface, this may seem a rather simple and fairly uneventful tale. In fact, although short, it is skilfully constructed to convey more than many much longer ones: a strong sense of place, in particular the vast, neglected countryside; vivid impressions of life on a typical mid-C19 estate; pithy dialogues, with the relationships between the characters building to some intense psychological drama, and sharply divided views on progress versus stability.

Turgenev may have been enabled to write such a perceptive book because his travels in Europe gave the scope to judge his native country more objectively. He actually began to write it when staying at Ventnor on the Isle of Wight. If such an allegedly gentle and certainly insightful man managed to fall out for several years with both Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, was it primarily their fault?

For me, this is the most accessible and enjoyable Russian novel I have read. It is both heartwarming and poignant, with a final sense of “everlasting peace, of that great peace ‘indifferent’ nature”, despite everything, to quote Peter Carson’s excellent translation.

“Buddenbrooks” by Thomas Mann: minute descriptions of a bygone way of life

Buddenbrooks House (Buddenbrookhaus) — description, photos, оn the map
Built in 1758, belonging to Thomas Mann’s grandparents, what is now a museum is where the author lived in his youth, and set his account of the decline of a bourgeois family in Lübeck.

A book group’s choice of Colm Tóibín’s “The Magician”, a fictionalised biography of Thomas Mann, prompted me to read one of this Nobel prize winning author’s works. “Buddenbrooks”, his first novel published in 1901 when he was still in his mid-twenties, traces the decline of a prosperous family of Lübeck merchants over four generations, clearly based on his own. In writing about the materialism, snobbery and stifling moral codes of the wealthy middle classes, perhaps this may be compared with “The Forsyte Saga” by John Galsworthy, who also won the Nobel Prize.                                                          

Although it is considered one of the finest novels representing C19 Germany, I have to admit that by the end of Chapter 14, I had  decided against struggling on dutifully through the remaining almost 600 pages. Flipping forward through the text, and searching for motivation via the many glowing reviews did not alter this decision.  Initially, I thought that the stiff style, which could of course be said to reflect C19 German society, might be down to the English translation. I switched from the version produced by Helen Tracy Lowe-Porter, who possessed sole rights to translate Mann’s work for  more than two decades, to the American John Wood’s less formal style, published in 1994.

However, the problem remained for me in the  mind-numbing descriptions of people’s dress and appearance, the décor and furniture of rooms, the plentiful food and small talk, although all this may well convey very accurately the ambience and behaviour of a particular society.  When poor little Christian Buddenbrooks shocks his mother  at a social gathering by complaining he is “damned sick”, the doctor knows it is a case of indigestion triggered by four heavy meals a day, but tactfully suggests a strict diet of “young pigeon and French bread”.  This may be quite revealing, even slightly amusing, but are such incidents sufficient to hold one’s interest?

There is a plethora of characters who make brief appearances, lists of families who form part of the Buddenbrooks’ social circle, but all are sketchily portrayed and two dimensional – admittedly perhaps intentionally indicating the superficiality of relationships. There are telling hints that some of the pushiest socially inferior upstarts are doing rather too well, but this theme is not fleshed out. Those described in more detail often seem somewhat eccentric or unreal, their inner thoughts remaining opaque.

Dramatic incidents prove damp squibs: a house warming party is threatened by a letter to patriarch Johann Buddenbrook from his estranged son, demanding compensation for his share in the property – this sounds like a promising plot-line, but comes to nothing. Likewise, when sent to holiday on the coast to ease her stress over being courted by a man her parents wish her to marry, Tony (Antonie) Buddenbrook ironically falls for a young medical student but this situation is never developed. It seems that Mann was more interested in characters than plot, but even the main players seem too bound by convention to express themselves with any spontaneity and depth.

By Chapter 14, it is clear that girls like Tony are mere  pawns in a marriage market designed to support family fortunes,  pampered but denied a decent education so dependent and ill-equipped to cope with life. Tony’s sense of personal importance grounded in her family, acceptance of her role in forming a link in the chain of family connections, ultimately lead her to agree to marriage to the phony creep Herr Grünlich. The fact that even she can see through this character while apparently her father cannot, may be a clue to the failure of the family to prosper, as the decline begins.

So, feeling that I have grasped the narrow, blinkered bygone world presented in this novel, so lacking in natural expression of real human feelings, there is not enough to move, amuse, enlighten or fill me with anticipation to read to the end.

“Le pays des autres” by Leïla Slimani – “Other People’s Country”

The first part of a planned trilogy, this  family saga draws  on memories of Leïla Slimani’s own Franco-Moroccan heritage. 

Le pays des autres (French Edition) by [Leïla Slimani]

Mathilde, an impulsive, immature young  Frenchwoman who has grown up in Alsace,  falls in love with Amine, a Moroccan who fought for France in the Second World War, enduring captivity as a POW in the process.  A relationship which seems largely based on physical attraction is strained at times almost to breaking point by the inevitable cultural differences  which neither has anticipated.  “You can’t be serious” Mathilde exclaims on learning that they will have to live with Amine’s mother for months before he can gain access to the land he has inherited. “Here, that’s the way it goes,” is Amine’s stern response, having sat down to mask his wife’s height advantage, which might sap his authority.

When the land proves poor,  further stress hastens  Amine’s metamorphosis into a  dour workaholic, finding occasional relief only in drinking sessions with friends in local bars, his frustration too often exploding into violence which may be justified to some extent by the norms of his society .  Mathilde, it has to be said, is quite an irritating woman, yet one’s sympathy is aroused when the white colonial wives openly disparage her for “being pregnant by an Arab”.  The resilience and stoicism she develops over time are admirable, although her passive acceptance, even complicity in some of Amine’s worst actions is troubling. She goes beyond  a fleshed-out character to one who seems a mass of contradictions.

Amine  has some redeeming features. Brought up as a muslim, he shows tolerance in letting their daughter Aïsha attend a Catholic school, where the bright little girl is horribly bullied and perhaps  as a result becomes excessively pious. In the ferocious battle for Moroccan independence Amine tries to avoid taking either side, literally grafting orange on to lemon trees in the novel’s recurring metaphor. Even when at risk of losing everything during a general torching of the locality, he is able to teach his daughter that  in wars, the concept of good and bad people, along with justice, cease to apply – people we have grown up with become our enemies.

The Country of Others by [Leïla Slimani]

Yet, overall, the book is too long, laboured, repetitive and somewhat disjointed, so that the reader is left wondering what happens to a particular character, or has to  assume that certain key events have taken place. For instance, from being grindingly poor the family seems to become suddenly better off, but the process of change is unclear. Mathilde’s development as provider of an unofficial local medical centre seems implausible in the light of her other well-intentioned but half-baked projects. Conversely, some quite minor incidents are given undue coverage, before drifting away to nothing. As is often the way with French novels, there is too much “telling” rather than “showing”. So we have to receive a mini history lesson on  1950s Morocco at one point – useful, but the facts could have been woven more subtly into the  tale.

For me a shorter novel with a stronger narrative drive would have proved more engaging. As it stands, it may improve on a second reading.

“The Girl who Died” by Ragnar Jonasson: marmite effect of Scandi supernatural crime noir

The Girl Who Died: The Sunday Times bestseller that will take you to the edge of the world by [Þ. Ragnar Jónasson]

Having enjoyed Ragnar Jonasson’s “Dark Iceland” series of psychological crime thrillers for their strong sense of place, plot twists and well-developed characters, I was somewhat disappointed by this stand alone novel.

Written in a rather wooden, clichéd style, which may be due to the translation, the frequent intrusion of creepy menace seems rather heavy-handed, alternating with slow-paced, generally rather dull scenes which admittedly reflect daily life in a tiny, inward-looking isolated coastal community.

This is where Una, “a Reykjavik girl through and through” decides to spend a year teaching the only two children in the fishing village, rather implausibly without first visiting the place to experience just how eerily quiet it is, checking out the ten inhabitants or being “vetted” in person herself. It also appears unlikely that she would previously have given up her training to be a doctor for supply teaching, although it is suggested from the outset that she has been traumatised by some previous event which remains tantalisingly unexplained until near the end.

The author employs the usual devices: the prologue to provide a “hook” of chilling suspense (which proves to be a chapter repeated later on); a sinister apparently unconnected sub-plot interwoven in short chapters written in italics with the main storyline. There is a difference from the author’s previous novels in the strong suggestion of the supernatural, although this could always be attributed to Una taking too much refuge in red wine or simply being mentally disturbed. After a final ingenious and poignant twist, the ending may seem weak and rushed, but leaving the situation, “what happens next”, open to interpretation may in fact prove more satisfying for many readers.

On reflection, there are the ingredients here for a novel as outstanding as it is falsely hyped to be, but it feels dashed off too quickly, perhaps to meet a deadline.

“La Belle Créole” by Maryse Condé or “The Belle Créole”: No escape?

La Belle Créole (French Edition) by [Maryse Condé]

Set on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, officially an overseas department of mainland France, but with the legacy of past colonial exploitation, and ongoing tensions between former slaves and the descendants of their economic masters, the White Créoles or “békés”, the action takes place in the 1990s. This is a period of particular unrest: demands for independence from France, union-led strikes cause power cuts, mountains of waste fester uncollected, and ferocious packs of wild dogs terrorise the streets, while the rich rely on fierce hounds to protect their villas from thieves.

The novel opens with the unexpected acquittal of Dieudonné, a young black gardener charged with the murder of his middle-aged, wealthy, white employer Loraine. Since it appears unquestionable that he killed her, and he unfortunately shares a name with an infamous real-life French comedian, the reader may feel uneasy about sympathising with him. In this highly publicised case, Dieudonné is recognised wherever he goes, and opinion is divided, with some of his own relatives reluctant to give him shelter.

Covering the twenty-four hours after his release, Maryse Condé gradually reveals the circumstances of his crime, together with details of the past which shaped him. Perhaps it was the love and care for his mother Marine, crippled by an accident, which led him, after her death, to transfer his affections to Lorraine. A once beautiful woman, ambitions thwarted by poverty, Marine grew embittered after her abandonment by the wealthy man who has never lifted a finger to help their son Dieudonné. He was given a brief taste of “the good life” when the Cohens, a family visiting from abroad, took a fancy to him, taking him on trips aboard their boat, “La Belle Créole”, even letting him steer, until all contact abruptly ceased after their return home. The boat is left to rot in the marina, a refuge for Dieudonné’s criminal friends or his eccentric mentor, the penniless poet Boris – one of the novel’s larger than life characters.

The novel is peppered with Créole words which are explained in a glossary at the end of the English translation, but unfortunately not in the original French version. It is well worth making the effort to look these up in order to appreciate the book fully.

Apart from his acquittal, a series of unfortunate coincidences seem to dog Dieudonné. Yet he also makes a frustrating anti-hero in that, partly through being so damaged by life, he seems incapable of pursuing opportunities when they arise. The snare of his obsession with Loraine, his plight of how to deal with an unexpected freedom when he has lost the one person he loves, weave the at times wearisome thread binding this novel together.

Beneath this lies what is for me the essence of the novel: the vivid portrayal of Guadeloupe, with its strong sense of place combines with the searing parody of a range of often exaggerated characters to raise our understanding of life there and arouse sympathy for those like Dieudonné whose existence has been blighted by circumstance.