Book Review: Astragal

Astragal, by Albertine Sarrazin (translated by Patsy Southgate), is described as a semi-autobiographical novel written when the author was in prison. This edition opens with an introduction by Patti Smith for whom the story held particular resonance. Patti researched the author, who died in 1967 ‘just shy of her thirtieth birthday’. She also read up on the translator, offering insight into the damaged people who created what is regarded as a ‘lost classic of 60s French literature’.

“My Albertine, how I adored her! Her luminous eyes led me through the darkness of my youth. She was my guide through the nights of one hundred sleeps.”

I opened these pages with high expectations of a tale that would touch my core and leave me sated. I was disappointed.

The protagonist is a young girl, Anne, who in escaping prison – where she is serving a seven year sentence for armed robbery – breaks her ankle. She is rescued from the roadside – where she crawls – by an ex-con named Julien, who still makes his living by nefarious means. Over many months he hides Anne at various locations without and within Paris, paying well for her board and keep. Anne falls in love with Julien but must live with his peripatetic lifestyle, never knowing when he will show up for his short visits.

For much of the time covered, Anne is crippled by her injury. Frustrated by her reliance on others, she soon grows tired of each hideout Julien arranges. She spends her days smoking and drinking, often having to avoid the sexual advances of those she must share a roof with. When she can finally walk again, she gains a degree of independence by turning to prostitution.

Anne is tiny in stature but feisty, a teenager used to looking out for herself. She has no wish to remain beholden to Julien, but longs for him to choose to be with her above the other women he admits to consorting with. The world they move in is shady, a need to survive overcoming scruples many take for granted. Anne is favoured by the men she encounters. This is disturbing given her childlike demeanour.

The writing is succinct and engaging but I found the characters unappealing. The depiction of their lives was of interest but there seemed little hope or desire for anything more edifying. The love story at its heart appeared naive given the experiences of the subjects and the hustles they accepted. The denouement seemed fitting after the risks taken.

I may have enjoyed the story more had my expectations not been raised by other readers. Perhaps it will appeal to those who itch for vicarious risk, for whom precariousness generates adrenaline rather than anxiety. Anne and Julien were habitual and willing criminals. Reasons for the choices they made were glossed over making it harder to empathise with the lack of care shown for their victims.

A different side of Paris to that normally idealised by artists, especially the literati. Not a book I regret reading but one I am unlikely to recommend.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Serpent’s Tail, as part of a giveaway.

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