Book Review: Faces on the Tip of My Tongue

Faces on the Tip of My Tongue, by Emmanuelle Pagano (translated by Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis), is the third book in the publisher’s 2019 ‘There Be Monsters’ series. It is a collection of thirteen interlinked short stories set in France across several decades. The initial tales, whilst evocative, struggled to capture my full attention. As reading progressed common threads and characters emerged. Meaning and depth increased thereby strengthening engagement.

The collection opens with The Lake’s Favourite which tells of an almost too perfect period in the narrator’s childhood. At just a few pages in length this offered a snapshot with little development.

The Jigsaw Puzzle, whilst still short, offered more to consider. It portrays a marriage faltering in the shade of an old and popular lime tree that draws visitors to the remote location. The couple’s young daughter happily copes with each change in circumstance until her mother tries to impose her concerns on the child, against the girl’s will and that of her father. I was pleased when, later in the collection, this family was revisited from several perspectives.

The Short Cut is set largely around a funeral. A woman is returning to an area she left as a teenager to watch as her cousin and doppelgänger is buried. The women made choices when they went their separate ways but neither could predict where these would lead.

“I knew what frightened her most: it was the life that I had chosen where nothing is known. She had tried to persuade me not to leave, telling me other places were the same as here but worse”

I read through this story twice and still it remained elusive until the characters were revisited in subsequent tales.

Blind Spots is told from the point of view of a hitchhiker who has worked out a way to gain lifts by taking drivers by surprise. I found this story overlong and repetitive although it had a good ending. It turned out to be a pivotal tale in the collection.

“The faster you go, the less you can see on either side. The bigger your blind spots. On the motorway it’s as if we’re looking down a tunnel […] lots of people go about with blinkers, not just on motorways. They’re not really driving their lives. I mean, not leading their lives. Instead of leading their own lives they let themselves be carried along in their restricted view of things. Social conventions, appearances, all those things, you know, all those things that shrink your field of vision.”

The Loony and the Bright Spark is one of several stories looking at the elderly and misfits in society – how they came to be where they are and the strange rituals they adopt to give them some reason to keep on living.

Mum at the Park is a snapshot of a child’s view of their book reading parent who has no interest in other people or playing childish games. The city doesn’t suit her but the boy regards it as a playground filled with potential friends.

I enjoyed Just a Dad – another view of a parent as seen through the eyes of their child. By this stage in the collection the reader is observing recurring characters at different times in there lives. This fragmented approach to storytelling added interest but required a going back to reread previously portrayed details.

Over the Aquaduct tells of a childish joke that has unintended consequences, driving apart good friends.

The penultimate story, The Dropout, revisits characters, this time at a wedding where a wrongly invited guest causes the bride to behave badly.

“life is just that, a whole lot of hitches, contradictions, mishaps and revisions, and it’s all the better for that. It’s the opposite of inertia.”

Having read each tale I would say that overall I enjoyed the collection even if it was quite a slow burner. The writing is choppy in places as is the subject matter. The sense of place is strong and the characters interesting. I suspect this is a book that would offer more on rereading.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.

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