Book Review: Winter Flowers

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Winter Flowers, by Angélique Villeneuve (translated by Adriana Hunter), brings to life the everyday hardships of ordinary working people living in Paris at the tail end of the First World War. Its protagonist is Jeanne Caillett, a talented flower maker living with her young daughter, Léonie, in a cramped two room apartment on the fourth floor of a building situated in the 2nd arrondissement. Jeanne’s husband, Toussaint, was called up to fight in the summer of 1914. In late 1916 his face was blown apart by shrapnel. He asked his wife not to visit after he was eventually evacuated to Paris for treatment and to convalesce.

The tale opens with Toussaint finally returning to his home and family. It is not just his looks that have been changed. Jeanne has been “waiting for a husband who’s been replaced by a stranger”. Unable or unwilling to speak, Toussaint hides his injuries behind a mask – physical and emotional.

The story explores loss in many forms and how this is dealt with by those directly affected or who stand witness. The authorities hold up the war dead as heroes. Those who return disfigured are openly pitied but expected to cope and fit back in. The Spanish Flu is also reaping lives, while others succumb to illnesses such as tuberculosis. Parents must deal with the deaths of their partners and children with chilling regularity and little compassion given how common such suffering is.

While Toussaint was away, Jeanne worked hard to keep herself and Léonie warm and fed amidst the shortages of fuel and food. They befriended neighbours, a small group of women offering mutual support, sharing what little they had when they could. Hunger and cold were rife. Long working days necessary for survival.

Toussaint’s return means there is another mouth to feed. His lack of communication leaves Jeanne unsure if he will work again or even leave the apartment. Léonie is put out that she no longer has so much of her mother’s attention, especially as her place in the big bed has been taken by a stranger who bears little resemblance to the picture she knew as her father.

As the family dynamic shifts, one of the neighbours finds her burden increased. With only so many hours in the day, Jeanne struggles to offer the support she would have managed previously. So much is being asked of her and still she must work.

The writing is spare and exquisite, the characters given depth, their plight drawn with care and empathy. Although a war story the focus is on the experiences of those who stayed home and must now deal with the aftermath. It is a poignant reminder of the many and varied hardships they faced.

I have read of the war disfigured in The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times, and of another father’s return after the war in Her Father’s Daughter. Winter Flowers adds an additional dimension and is as subtly powerful and thoughtfully written while never descending into the sentimental. A perceptive story written with incisive skill.

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

Book Review: Her Father’s Daughter

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Her Father’s Daughter, by Marie Sizun (translated by Adriana Hunter), is the second in a series from the publisher titled Fairy Tale: End of Innocence. Peirene Press publishes these series of contemporary novellas, each consisting of three books chosen from across the world connected by a single theme. TLS described them as “Two-hour books to be devoured in a single sitting: literary cinema for those fatigued by film.”

This story is set in Paris at the close of the Second World War. It centres around a child, not yet old enough to attend school, who lives in a small apartment with her beautiful mother. It is told from the girl’s perspective but with the clarity of an adult’s mind. It is memory, those fragments of a life that stay with us when others are lost to the passing of time. The events related will change the child’s life forever, in ways that she could not then comprehend.

Referred to by all she knows as ‘the child’, or ‘my darling’, she was given the name France at the dictate of a father she has never met. He is a prisoner of war, taken early in the conflict. The war is now coming to an end and he is to return.

France’s days revolve around her mother. She has been allowed to act as she pleases, drawing on walls and in books, eating only the food she enjoys, her unruly existence indulged. France resents any who distract her mother: neighbours, acquaintances, and most especially her maternal grandmother who berates her daughter for the child’s behaviour. France likes best to stay home, to have her mother to herself. Although they go to the park or to shops, she has only once left Paris. This was to stay in a house in Normandy, with a garden, but memories of that time are hazy and she is forbidden to mention them.

When France is told that her father is to return she understands that the life she has enjoyed is about to change. She cannot imagine having a man in their home; this is beyond her experience.

“What is a father? […] Father’s, these days, are pretty thin on the ground”

When her father moves into the apartment the dynamics of the little family must adapt. He is still suffering the effects of his incarceration, is appalled at France’s behaviour and the way his wife has kept house. France observes how her parents behave when together and how her mother has been altered, shrunk. France desires nothing more now than to win her father’s affection for herself.

What the reader is offered is a view of the strange world of adults through the eyes of a child, the hurts and resentments harboured when ignored or reprimanded, the promises made and then forgotten. France attempts to draw her father closer by sharing her innermost secrets. In doing so she emits a seismic blow to the fragile peace so carefully constructed from her father’s return.

The writing is subtle and exquisite, a literary ballet offering a poignancy and depth beneath the delicacy of presentation. Each short episode leaves the reader eager for the next. I couldn’t put this book down.

A stunning, beautiful read that is everything a story should be. I cannot recomend this book enough.

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