Chanson Douce or Lullaby by Leila Slimani – nanny state


This is my review of   Chanson Douce“Lullaby” in its English translation) by Leila Slimani Ground down by motherhood, despite loving her two small children, Myriam eagerly accepts a former colleague’s offer of a high-flying position in his law form. The problem of finding a suitable nanny is easily resolved in the form of Louise, who not only forms an immediate bond with the children but proves a superb cook, even producing delicious dinner parties for the envious friends of Myriam and her husband Paul,  also bringing order to their Paris apartment with her efficient juggling of laundry, cleaning and tidying up.

We know that this C21 Mary Poppins is too good to be true, since it is no “spoiler” to reveal the opening chapter, in which the two children are found dead or dying, having been stabbed by  Louise before turning the knife on herself.  If one can get past this harrowing debut, the novel is an absorbing psychological “whydunnit”, which explores the chain of events leading to Louise’s mental disintegration,  even enabling us to feel some sympathy for her in the process.

This gruesome theme is apparently triggered by real events: a Dominican nanny’s brutal murder of her charges in New York plus the author’s own memories of her parents worrying that a nanny had insinuated herself into their family to an alarming degree. As a former journalist, Leila Slimani clearly likes to base her novels on real events, and the comparisons made between Chanson Douce  (meaning Lullaby) and Gone Girl in terms of a shocking, drip-feed page-turner suggest that she has an eye for a money-spinning yarn.

Yet, this novel also has deeper underlying themes which I found of greater interest than the perhaps stereotyped portrait of a growing psychosis. There is  the examination of the tensions involved in how many couples with children find themselves living now. The nightmarish scenario is rooted in the guilt felt by many professional women over their attempts to combine a career with a family, in the face of the disapproval  often expressed by older women – parents and school teachers, who  perhaps having stifled their own aspirations to devote themselves to their offspring suggest that being raised by a string of nannies, subjected to after-school clubs and channelled into “quality time” may damage a child’s emotional development.

Another thought-provoking  aspect of the book is the plight of the nannies themselves,  effectively working class servants in a middle class home, often young immigrants coping with an unfamiliar culture. The relationships exist in a precarious balance which may  be upset by too much playing at friendly equality on the part of the employers, to be clumsily retracted if the nanny’s  care suddenly conflicts with their attitudes and values  – as in the case of Louise inadvertently enraging Paul by making up his little daughter to look like a tart in his estimation. Often, the nannies’ personal problems are of no interest to their employers, frankly an irritation if these get in the way of their work. Only when it is  too late does an unexpected sighting of Louise arouse in Myriam for the first time an intense curiosity as to what she does when she is not with the family.

Although I understand why this is a best-seller, the failure to portray the parents’ reactions following the tragedy seems an omission.  I was disappointed by the weak, abrupt ending, as if the author did not know how to conclude it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is my review of  Checkpoint by Jean-Christophe Rufin

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended overall.

Sworn Virgin

 

This is my review of Sworn Virgin  by Elvira Dones.

According to the “Kanun”, “a set of traditional, orally transmitted laws which have persisted for centuries in the remote mountain valleys of northern Albania, a woman who feels the need to assume an independent male role in society must live as a “sworn virgin”, adopting the dress and behaviour of a man. When teenage Hana who has somehow managed to escape to Tirana to study literature feels obliged to return to her village to care for her dying Uncle Gjergi, rather than accept his insistence on the “security” of an arranged marriage, she impulsively resolves to become “Mark Doda”, rapidly learning to walk, swear, smoke and drink like a man. The irony is, of course, that a woman’s gaining of liberty in this way is at the price of the freedom to express her true self.

We first encounter Hana some fifteen years later when, in her mid-thirties, she has decided to take the drastic step of returning to life as a woman, making the transition in the family of her supportive cousin Lila who has emigrated to America. Proceeding in a series of lengthy flashbacks, the narrative explores with some empathy the practical and emotional difficulties of adapting back to life as a woman, particularly in a society in which this means being much more fashion-conscious and sexual, but glosses over why Hana did not simply return to Tirana after her uncle’s death, and over the process by which she began to change her mind about how she wants to live. Also, I may not have read carefully enough, but how did she manage to get access to the United States to both live and work there, it would seem indefinitely?

Although the theme caught my attention, I was initially put off by the clunky style, uncertain whether this was due to the Albanian author, writing in Italian, or the translation into English. It seems to flow better as the story progresses, perhaps as the author “gets into her stride”.

Some of the most vivid, authentic and moving sections are the descriptions of life in the enclosed, traditional mountains where songs and flowers are mixed with betrayal, wounds and brutality, “mountains made of eyes that observe and forbid”. The caustic comments on Orwellian life under communism, in which failings of the system were denied with hypocrisy and corruption rife amongst those in charge, have the bitter ring of personal experience. There is also a strong portrayal of the young Hana, hungry for learning, unable to deal with the fact that men find her attractive, and hampered by her sense of being an outsider, different from other more privileged students.

The scenes set in America seem weaker, verging at times on “chick lit” as, having acquired an impressive grasp of English at great speed, Hana experiments with makeup and women’s clothes, agonises over sex, periodically escapes into the masculine refuge of strong liquor, and banters with her Americanised niece Jonida, who I appreciate may have been included to show the life Hana might have led in different, freer circumstances.

Lila’s Albanian husband Shtjefën seems too good to be true, and a little hard to visualise: “He’s part bear, part butterfly, this man. He goes on slurping his bean soup. ‘What about you, Mark? Did you get some rest? You look a bit lost, brother.’ (Hana is still dressed as a man)…. Before asking for Lila’s hand, Shtjefën had been wiry and blond. His head was like a sunflower. The girls in the village said it was because of his height: he caught the sun as soon as it came out, long before the others, and was the last to lose it before sundown. His speech sounded rare and distant, like the glory that cloaked his family”. Perhaps this is intended to imply the incongruity of living in bland, standardised, materialistic urban America with unexpressed, dreamlike memories of life in the harsh but beautiful mountains.

The super-understanding journalist Patrick O’Connor plays a somewhat contrived role in a story which seems to end too abruptly. Overall, it’s a patchy novel, compelling at times, but some parts could have been developed better.

The Wound – The cost of denying the past

This is my review of The Wound by Laurent Mauvignier, a translation of “Des Hommes.

Of all the novels on the fraught topic of the struggle for Algerian independence from France, this is unusual in its focus on the trauma of young men sent out to fight a colonial war without understanding the situation into which they were thrown and unprepared for the violence they were about to witness and perpetrate. The English title of “The Wound” for this novel, to be found in the opening quotation from Genet (“As for your wound, where is it?……”) seems more apt than the original one of “Des Hommes” (“Men”) in that it suggests the long-term mental injury they suffered, but were often unable to relieve by talking about it. Perhaps they felt instinctively that those who had not shared their experiences would never understand, or they repressed memories too shameful, painful or shocking to express, or simply lacked the words to confide in others. Yet “Men” is also a meaningful title in conveying how a group of males may tend to interact, responding to an attack with aggression, also using it as a means of avoiding the expression of emotion.

Starting with “afternoon”, this novel covers a twenty-four hour period split into four sections, but also makes extensive use of flashbacks and recollections to reveal the lives of two cousins from a rural French community: Bernard, nick-named “Feu-de-Bois”, a dishevelled alcoholic who sponges off his long-suffering sister Solange, and Rabut who narrates parts of the story. Both in their sixties, the cousins were called up to fight in Algeria in the early ‘60s, but have never spoken about this part of their lives which clearly haunts them both. For Rabut, Algeria has an unreal dreamlike quality, alien and exotic in its sunshine, scenery and Arab culture, shocking in the incidents of brutality.

The fragmented, stream of consciousness style can be very powerful, but also hard to follow, particularly if one is reading it in the original French as a foreigner. The opening pages are particularly obscure as we see Feu-de-Bois antagonising his whole family by a particularly crass action, before “going off the rails” in what seems like a racist attack. Rabut seems to have some empathy with his cousin, yet it becomes apparent that there is also a deep-seated hostility between the two men. The explanation for all this is gradually revealed in an impressionistic novel with a strong sense of place – one can see the fields in the snow versus the desert barracks – , minute descriptions of physical sensations, snatches of dialogue and intense action, or sharp flashes of insight in all the bleak obliqueness.

I found it necessary to read up some background history to understand the book better, and some aspects could have been developed more fully, like the invidious position of the Harkis, native Muslims who volunteered as auxiliaries in the French Army during the Algerian War. Yet perhaps Mauvignier is more interested in the feelings aroused by a colonial war in which one does not have a stake, rather than the details of the Algerian conflict in particular. This is likely to be a novel which divides opinion over its distinctive style, unusual structure and inconclusive plot. It repays rereading, is somehow absorbing without being a conventional page-turner, but certainly gives food for thought over the psychological impact of the Algerian War, particularly on individuals, ordinary French people caught up in it.

“Don’t Let Go” by Michel Bussi – The risks of revisiting the past

This is my review of Don’t Let Go: Some holidays are paradise, some are murder…. by Michel Bussi.

On holiday in the French tropical paradise of Réunion, Liane Bellion disappears from her hotel room, leaving only evidence of a struggle. As the damning evidence against him mounts, her husband Martial decides to go on the run with the couple’s pampered but bright six-year-old daughter Sopha. This being a novel by Michel Bussi, Martial is unlikely to have murdered his wife, but is unable to prove his innocence, plus he could well have committed some other crime, or be about to do so.

In the same vein as Bussi’s excellent “Nymphéas noirs”, this novel has a remarkably convoluted plot in which the reader can be sure of nothing, except that the author is capable of switching from corny mawkishness to moments of brutal violence or tragic fate from which no character may be spared. Once again, he develops a strong sense of place, in this case a volcanic island with some striking landscapes of deep craters, lava fields encroaching on fields of sugar cane and palm-fringed beaches, scenic tourist spots, which he describes in detail along with the local vegetation and birdlife – all of which can be checked on google images. Even the route Martial takes can be located on “street view”, and the Hotel Alamanda at Saint-Gilles-les-Bains exists in reality.

Bussi also fleshes the story out with details of the social background: the Créoles, descendants of slaves and still exploited as cheap labour in the hotels, the Zarabes, muslims of Indian origin like the driven police officer, Captain Aja Purvi, and the Zoreilles, the “top dogs” from the French mainland.

This is a page-turner until the accumulation of implausible plot twists becomes too much to swallow and by then it is too late to give up. There is also the odd dud scene, such as the clunky debate on the effects of rum on the local population conducted by the hypocritical drinking mates of unlikely police lieutenant Christos. Even more toe-curling are the sex scenes with his voluptuous lover Imelda.

Most of the characters seem somewhat overdrawn: ageing hippy Christos, with his grey pony-tail, smoking pot he has confiscated from Imelda’s borderline-criminal teenage son Nazir; Imelda herself, a Creole Miss Marple to out-class the detectives, but not wise enough to avoid having five children by different feckless men, nor keep clear of danger in her sleuthing; Aja Purvi, humourless in her single-minded ambition, throwing the furniture round in bursts of unprofessional frustration, exploiting her long-suffering husband’s seemingly inexhaustible good will as he somehow combines a teaching career with caring for their two daughters.

The slightly jokey tone perhaps makes one take the occasional bloody murder too lightly. The strongest aspect of the book is the creation of a sense of tension as Martial and Sopha maintain their freedom against the odds. The only subtle relationship in the book is the complex bond between the two as Martial tries to connect with the daughter whose care has always been provided by his overprotective wife, with the constant nagging suggestion that Martial may in fact be even more of a monster than the police believe.

This “reads” better in the original French rather than the very literal but somewhat wooden English translation. For the reasons given above, it is not as effective as “Nymphéas noirs”

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

“The First Man” by Albert Camus – Making sense of a life

This is my review of The First Man (Penguin Modern Classics) by Albert Camus.

If possible, this is best read in French to appreciate fully Camus’ writing.

When forty-year-old Jacques visits his father’s grave, he is taken aback by the realisation that he was only twenty-nine, far younger than his son is now, when killed in the First World War. The compulsion to find out more about his father takes Jacques back to Algiers where he was brought up, but the visit fails to provide many clues as to what his parent was really like. Jacques realises that he will never know his father, who will remain a mystery resulting from his poverty, being one of the anonymous masses despatched in waves to develop North African territory between the sea and the vast expanses of desert. So Jacques must be self-sufficient, “le premier homme”, learning to grow up without a sense of roots and recollections from the past.

The book develops as a moving account of Jacques’ childhood in a close-knit but impoverished family, starved of opportunity, lacking books, newspapers, even a radio, too busy in the struggle to survive to communicate much or reflect life. He craves the affection of his widowed mother who is clearly proud of him, but cannot express her emotions. Isolated by her deafness and illiteracy which means she can only earn a living as a cleaner and washerwoman, the nearest she gets to escape is to sit by the window, watching the world go by. A brief attempt at romance is destroyed when her brother beats up the suitor who threatens the family unit. Jacques’ formidable grandmother’s belief in character- building includes sending him out at the night to catch a chicken in the coop before forcing him to watch its execution. At thirteen, he is denied the pleasures of roaming free in his summer holidays by her insistence on his earning money in the accounts office of a hardware store.

At first I was disappointed to find that this fictionalised autobiography of Albert Camus, in which he sometimes reverts to the characters’ original names, is incomplete – an unedited stream of conscience found at the scene of his fatal car crash, a draft which so dissatisfied him that he intended to burn it. My initial impressions were of a disjointed, often banal and indigestible read, with long sentences in interminable paragraphs of I counted up to eight pages.

I became hooked at the point where Jacques is taken under the wing of primary school teacher M. Bernard, the father figure when he needed one, who sees the boy’s potential and goes out of his way to prepare him for the entrance exam for the lycée, his escape route from a life of grinding poverty, not to mention charming the boy’s grandmother into letting him continue his studies when he could be contributing to the family’s meagre earnings. It is fascinating to see how schools have changed: overhearing Jacques called a “teacher’s pet”, M.Bernard readily admits this, announcing it is the least he can do for comrades killed in the war to favour one of their deserving offspring. When, as honour among pupils requires, Jacques beats up the boy who has mocked him, and the parents complain, Jacques is mortified to be forced to stand in the corner of the school yard for a week with his back to the ball games he loves. M. Bernard sidles up and gives him permission to look across to where the other boy is being punished in the same way.

There are wonderful descriptions of the oppressive, prolonged heat of Algiers in the long summer months, suggesting the germ of the idea for “L’Étranger”, or the joys of childhood, as when Jacques brandishes a palm branch to revel in the feeling of the wind vibrating through his body. A recurring background theme is the effect of colonisation where a centralised French cultural curriculum is imposed without any concessions, together with the uneasy relationship between Arabs and residents of French origin. Also, Jacques’ intense introspection, examining issues from all angles foreshadows Camus’s philosophical writing in later life, as in “La Chute”. In short, this book is not only a vivid portrayal of the life of a bright but emotionally repressed boy in a poverty-stricken but close-knit family, but also a key to the literary works which brought the author fame and criticism.

It repays rereading to tease out the mass of insights and ideas. Invaluable for any student of Camus and his work, the power of its spontaneous flow compensates to some extent for the lack of editing.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars