“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.

“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?

“Désorientale” (Desoriental) by Négar Djavadi – Culture shock

Disoriental by [Négar Djavadi, Tina Kover]Born into an Iranian family of intellectuals who opposed the regimes of both the Shah and Khomeini, author Négar Djavidi arrived in France aged 11 after crossing the mountains of Kurdistan on horseback with her mother and sister. This gives an authentic ring  and some autobiographical elements to her acclaimed first novel.

It is a family saga covering four generations of an Iranian family  over more than a century of dramatic political and cultural change from exotically named feudal lord  Montazemolmolk living in the northern region of Mazandaran, with his harem of more than fifty bickering wives to grandson Darius, a dissident intellectual whose writing against first the Shah and then Ayatollah Khomeini forces him into exile in Paris with his family, including daughter Kimiâ, the narrator.

Much of the story is related in the form of flashbacks or imagined reconstructions of anecdotes Kimiâ has heard about her relatives, recalled as she sits, clutching a tube of sperm, in the waiting room of a Paris fertility clinic. This rather clunky plot device adds to the reader’s frequent confusion over the large number of often thinly sketched characters, like the brothers of Darius who are referred to by numbers 1 to 6 (there is a list of key family members at the back which you could miss until too late) and continual lengthy digressions.  The approach is deliberate in that the author has explained when interviewed her aim to portray the fragmented, kaleidoscopic nature of memory. Although this has received critical praise, I found the abrupt switches in her thoughts, usually expressed in dense exposition, quite hard to take. A stream of consciousness  can be very powerful, but in this case the continual change of subject is further disrupted when Kimiâ becomes an intrusive narrator,  justifying or apologising for an abrupt switch of topic:  “Allow me before it’s too late, before the storm of the Revolution rises and invades my story, to return to my resemblance to Grandmother”.  Dramatic events are undermined by a lack of subtlety,  even giving them an incongruous pantomime quality, as in the continual foreshadowing of  “L’ÉVÉNEMENT” (“THE EVENT”).

Continually being told what to think, trying to keep track of the characters as they flit in and out, mentioned in passing, I rarely engaged with any of them. The author is  by profession a script writer, so I am surprised that she did not make more use of scenes with dialogues which would have enabled the characters to reveal themselves, open to interpretation as we do in real life. The details of the occasional footnotes to provide a condensed history of events could have been woven into the story, or included as an introduction at the outset.

Kimiâ is “disoriented” in more than one sense: not only the abrupt cultural change from Teheran to Paris via an arduous trek led by people smugglers, but also confusion over her sexuality. Predicted by her tealeaf reading grandmother to be a boy, she acts and feels like one, imagining herself growing up to be a man. Her period of extreme teenage rebellion in Paris, dressing as a punk, drinking and smoking joints in shared squats after her perplexed mother has thrown her out is therefore a way of taking refuge in a world where her background is of no interest and she is not judged. She ends up in a relationship with a woman, but desperate to have children fathered by a man who will take an interest in his children, and able to provide the kind of cultural context she has lost in exile.

Although I think a heavily pruned version of the story with fewer characters would have been much more effective and allowed more space to develop some interesting ideas, perhaps the style is in the tradition of Iranian storytelling, so that an oppressively large cast of relatives bound in a love-hate relationship, and strong ties of mutual support and obligation, somehow co-existing with harsh judgement and rejection e.g. of homosexuality (to the extent of denying its existence), serve to provide the necessary insight into Iranian life.  By contrast, Kimiâ’s  adult world of punk and pop groups and artificial insemination for lesbians using sperm from an HIV positive man,  is not really typical of the West, and is a rather extreme example of the contrast between the freedom of the West and the conservatism of Iran.

There are some interesting comparisons e.g. whereas the Paris clinic is tense and silent, in Iran people would be so engaged in chatting that they would not notice when their turn to be seen arrived!  When the mother of Kimiâ’s partner  confuses Iran with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Kimiâ sees this as the result of living in Belgium, a reassuring, peaceful place where everyone’s the same, after living for generations free of problems without any immigration or mixing: “no need to concern oneself with other people,  nor to be afraid of them, nor question their presence”.  This of course shows a lack of knowledge and understanding on both sides!

Although I read this in the original French, I believe the English translation is very faithful to it.

Hiver à Sokcho or Winter in Sokcho by Elsa Shua Dusapin – “When the rain-hammered sea rises like spikes on the spine of a sea urchin”

I did not expect to be so gripped by this choice for a French book group, which has also been highly praised in its English translation.

A twenty-five-year-old narrator whose name we never learn, so I shall call her “N”, returns from studies in Seoul to her home town of Sokcho, a seaside resort more dead than alive in the winter snows near the grimly surreal border zone with North Korea. N seems to feel a perpetual “outsider”, through being only half Korean, her father a French engineer “passing through” of whom she has no memories. Since the author is also half-Korean and half-French, one has to hope that this is not too autobiographical.

Into the rundown hotel where she skivvies for the grumpy Park, there appears Kerrand, a successful creator of graphic novels, with the added attraction of being French, who immediately uses N to help him buy art materials and guide him around. From the outset they are drawn to each other: both introverted, troubled and unfulfilled, which drives Kerrand to drift round the world seeking a purpose for the cartoon hero who may be his “alter ego”, while N tries to avoid facing up to her feelings by burying herself in routine tasks and clinging to the mantra that “her mother needs her”. Although on the same wavelength when discussing Kerrand’s art, they find it impossible to express, perhaps even acknowledge their emotions, as they keep making tentative advances and then withdrawing, always out of phase.

I admire the deceptive simplicity with which the author subtly conveys so much in such a short novel, with chapters rarely more than two pages, written in a clear style, switching between minute description and a kind of poetry to create vivid pictures. It is necessary to read every word to avoid missing some vital point.
Unable to predict the ending, I was not surprised that it proved ambiguous and in some respects sad, yet still somehow the right outcome of this skilfully crafted novel.

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Reading between the lines, N’s incongruous engagement to the self-absorbed male model Jun-Oh, seems most likely to be a failed attempt to ward off her mother’s continual badgering for her to get married. Repressing her frustration, N’s at times almost bulimic stuffing of food to please her mother indicates her mental distress. Portrayed as a robust character less in need of help than her daughter, her mother runs a fish stall and takes pride in her cuisine, including her licence to remove the poison-filled liver from the puffer-fish, a Korean delicacy. Food, particularly of a fishy nature, plays an important role in this book as it does in Korean life.

We are given an intriguing insight into Korean life outside the westernised bubble of Seoul: the celebration of Seollal, the Korean New Year; the social life round the jjjmjilbang, or segregated Korean bathhouse; the “haenyeo”, hardy female divers with the unfamiliar (to us) range of edible creatures they cull from the sea.
Since Kerrand is keen to be driven to the border with North Korea, N visits it for the first time, because “only the tourists come here”. “Forbidden to leave the marked track, forbidden to raise one’s voice, forbidden to laugh” they pass through no man’s land “beige and grey as far as the eye can see”, where N can only tell that the grey-uniformed figure behind the souvenir counter is alive from the blink of her eyelids. The threat from the North even extends to the beach where a summer tourist who strays over the border risks being shot by an enemy machine gun.

N guides Kerrand round the Buddhist temple at Naksan, prompted by the stone statues to relate the folktale of the serpent which the dragon, guardian of the spring, must find to make the tortoise, guardian of the winter, cede his place.

Many phrases stick in the mind: “Pavane of dead leaves in the wind” or a striking description of fishermen preparing to catch squid: the slow rhythm of their boats on the swell, the switching on of bulbs attached to cables stretched from poop to prow to attract the molluscs, the pagoda at the end of the jetty from which N can watch their “light traps part towards the open waters, a slow and proud procession, the Milky Way of the sea” – all much more beautiful in the original French.