Book Review: Tender

tender

“I listen, patient as he talks and talks but out there on this frosty night the sordid race is still being run”

Tender is the third and final instalment in the author’s ‘involuntary trilogy’ which started with Die, My Love and Feebleminded. It is, once again, set in and around a remote home in rural France. The bucolic surrounds – cow pasture, woodland and vineyards – offer a stark contrast to the protagonist whose lusts and passions often veer into violence.

The story is narrated by a mother who is trying to raise her teenage son while barely controlling her desperate and carnal desires for her married lover – she grows frenzied when the man will not prioritise their affair as she demands. The boy regularly misses school – the pair have police records, coming under the radar of social services. The woman has vivid dreams that merge with her lived experiences. She struggles to contain her reactions when erotic appetites are not sated.

“this uncontainable fury across furrowed fields, groves of trees and every few miles a tantrum”

The mother’s behaviour is often reckless, sometimes cruel and regularly neglectful. She states a wish that she could keep her house in a better state, provide more regular food for her son and pay him more attention. Her days, though, pass at seemingly breakneck speed as she careers from one ill-thought action to another. There is a disturbing sexual tension at times in descriptions of filial interactions. It remained unclear to me what was being shared.

The son wishes to support his mother but struggles to keep up with her volatility. She tussles with the need to let go when he leaves her for time with his peers.

“They ride away, their exhaust pipes waking the families with him their new conscript. I stand up and walk through the house, still not dressed. I’m no more than the sound of an insect’s wing. Old age is a shipwreck.”

The woman tries to persuade her son to attend school then takes him off on a road trip that goes nowhere. The boy sides with his mother against her lover but is left on his own when it suits.

All of this is told in prose that sparks and burns with unsentimental candour. In many ways it is disjointed, yet this suits the recounted events unfolding through memory, action and regret. What comes across clearly is the fury and desperation of a beautiful woman who is libidinous yet inexorably aging. She may love her son but has needs of her own that she needs to assuage.

A short and powerful read that puts a labile woman front and centre – she is a mother but also herself. There may be discomfort in some of the attitudes expressed – towards immigrants, gypsies, illegals – but the raw honesty captures and pierces with its taut expression of emotions rarely confessed.

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

Book Review: Wild Dog

Wild Dog, by Serge Joncour (translated by Jane Aitken and Polly Mackintosh), is in many ways a thriller but written in such rich and sensuous language it demands to be savoured rather than rushed to conclusion. The plot runs across two timelines: the year following the outbreak of the First World War, and August 2017. Both are set in and around a remote French village where incomers are treated with unfriendly wariness.

Opening in July 1914, the superstitious villagers of Orcières are disturbed by the shrieks of unidentified creatures. They look fearfully towards extensive woodland that surrounds a steep hill casting its shadow over the village. They believe the house at its peak is cursed. Nobody now lives there although once it was the centre of a thriving vineyard.

When war arrives it steals the men and also livestock, requisitioned as beasts of burden or to feed the troops. Readers are reminded throughout the story of the barbarity of such man made offensives – the cost borne by those with no choice or understanding, yet made to suffer terribly.

In order to survive, the men’s work must be done by the women of the village. They feel guilt that they can shoulder the burden and worry about the changes this foreshadows.

The first known casualty of the war is the doctor whose wife, Joséphine, appears to be the only resident who has retained her horse. She takes to riding it up the cursed hill where an itinerant circus performer, a German, has been permitted by the mayor to hide his animals. The villagers are disturbed by the roars of lions and tigers that require many kilos of fresh meat to be fed to them regularly at a time when food is scarce.

The more contemporary timeline features a long married couple, Lise and Francke, who work in the film industry. Lise has been ill – blaming irradiated waves from phones and networks – and chose to step back from acting. She seeks solace in painting, meditation and a change in diet to cut out animal products. Following recent failures in the films he makes, Franck started working with two young business partners he hoped would reinvigorate his production company. Instead, he feels threatened by their ideas. When Lise suggests a three week holiday cut off from technology Franck is fearful of what plans will be hatched in his absence.

Lise and Franck rent the remote house on the hill above Orcières. They have never before taken a holiday away from other people. Franck is appalled at the lack of WiFi and mobile phone connection. Lise relaxes into the solitude, relishing the beauty of the location.

Across both timelines tension quickly builds as man and nature vie – predator and prey. Man is, of course, also of nature. And war springs from posturing power play – attempts to prove supremacy and reap the rewards. In the modern world this can also be seen in business deals – the suppressed violence felt against those who seek to neutralise competitors. When Franck befriends a wild dog that appears out of the woodland his primal instincts are awakened. Stripped of society, he seeks to attune with nature and use it to his advantage.

The World War roars on demanding more and more men to fuel its furnace of constructed hatred. In Orcières, Joséphine is struggling with the loneliness of widowhood and fantasises about the lion tamer whose body is so different from the doctor. The villagers blame the German incomer for any ills that befall the village. Voices of the circumspect are drowned out by those of the fearful. What is to be truly feared goes unrecognised.

Apart from a brief lull around the middle of the story, the plot progresses at a carefully crafted pace, building tension from potential threats – real and imagined. The basis of rumours that swirl are gradually revealed.

The writing style is wrapped around a degree of repetition. This cadence fits with the hunter mentality manifesting in the many layers of comparative lifestyle choices and personalities.

The story offers perspectives on the cost of survival in societies where what is considered natural is largely man made. Emotions are suppressed, creatures trained, vegetation managed. Ripples caused by any deviation from the accepted balance have consequences that are rarely anticipated.

Character development brings to the fore how little we know even those we are close to, and how new experiences can bring about unanticipated transformations. True nature is shown to be as barbaric as it is beautiful. This is a thought provoking and alluring read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Gallic Books.

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.

Book Review: The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau

Set in the small French border town of Saint-Louis, where many of the residents have lived all their lives, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau, by Graeme Macrae Burnet, tells the story of Manfred Baumann – a socially awkward loner – and his dealings with local detective, Georges Gorski. Manfred is a creature of habit who, most lunchtimes and evenings, frequents the Restaurant de la Cloche near the town marketplace. Here he observes the staff and clientele while enjoying predictable meals and glasses of wine. When a young waitress at the establishment fails to show up for work, the detective questions each of the regulars. Not wishing to be drawn into the investigation, Manfred is economical with the truths he tells. Georges needs to work out if the information withheld is of any importance.

Both of Manfred’s parents died when he was a child leaving him in the care of his maternal grandparents. He lost the one great love of his life while still a teenager. Now a bank manager in his thirties, Manfred has found ways of coping with his needs. The habits he has formed provide daily structure but rarely happiness.

Georges decision to join the police force went against the plans his parents had worked towards. The job is a niggling source of annoyance for his wife. Haunted by a murder case from his early career, Georges is determined to uncover Adèle’s fate. With few leads the case is at risk of going cold.

The story opens with a scene set in the Restaurant de la Cloche that introduces the reader to many of the key characters. It then follows Manfred through a typical weekend during which he is shown to have several distasteful habits. While the descriptions provide useful background I considered some repugnant.

After Adèle’s disappearance the pace of plot development picks up. Chapters looking back at Manfred’s childhood are also of increasing interest. The varying timelines have crossover characters, often not explicitly stated. The effects of parochial life, prejudice and gossip are well evoked.

The initial narrative and somewhat slow to start action had me wondering why the book came so highly recommended. These concerns quickly dissipated once details of such things as bodily emissions were subsumed by the dark undercurrents of unexplained hours. Manford’s view of himself is shown to be at odds with the casual opinions of acquaintances, whose own standing amongst their peers proves delusional.

Not a typical crime thriller, the strengths of this story are in character depth and development. What starts as exposition grows into a much more subtle discourse. The denouement is deft if poignant with a trademark afterword by the author. Worth sticking with for a tale that will linger.

The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau is published by Contraband.

Book Review: The Strawberry Thief

“life is on loan, and all the things we find on the way – lovers, children, happiness – have to be given back in the end.”

The Strawberry Thief, by Joanne Harris, is the fourth book in a series that started twenty years ago with Chocolat. It is gently paced but with an underlying darkness, a hint of magic unleashing powers difficult to control. At the story’s centre is a young girl whose independence has been stymied by her mother’s love. The instinct to protect generates fear – for the future of parent as much as child. In many ways this is a coming of age tale across two generations. It is about a need for self-determination and finding the strength to let go.

Vianne Rocher is running her chocolaterie in the sleepy French village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, living above the shop with her sixteen year old daughter, Rosette. Her older daughter, Anouk, is now in Paris with her boyfriend and is much missed. Rosette’s father, Roux, remains in his barge moored on the Tannes, restless but still a part of the family’s lives. The residents of Lansquenet are little changed – older of course but still thriving on gossip and its cause. Some changes though are inevitable – time cannot be held still, even here.

The story opens a week into Lent with the death of Narcisse, who owns the flower shop opposite the chocolaterie. His daughter is incensed to discover that he has left a patch of woodland to Rosette. Vianne’s younger daughter is regarded as a simpleton because she cannot speak in a way others can understand and is often restless when frustrated. Her skills at drawing go unregarded despite the stories they tell.

“Maman always says that stories are what keep us alive; the stories people tell us, and scatter like thistledown on the wind. And stories are all that’s left when we’re gone”

Narcisse leaves his story to the local priest, Reynaud, who struggles to read the hand written pages bequeathed with anything other than fear over what they may reveal about him. Since he was a young boy Reynaud has carried a terrible secret. If revealed he believes the life he has built in Lansquenet will be destroyed.

Told from the points of view of Reynaud, Vianne and Rosette, the ripples created by the old man’s death bring with them adjustments to the village dynamic that Vianne vehemently resists. Once a free agent, travelling with the wind, she is now fearful that the roots she has put down will not be enough to hold her daughters within her sphere. Anouk may have moved away but Vianne plans to hold fast to Rosette by whatever means necessary.

When a stranger sets up a business in the old flower shop, Vianne senses a challenge to her powers. Rosette, along with many of the villagers, is drawn to the stranger and what she can offer them. Vianne can see only a threat to Rosette’s continuing need for her. She vows to drive the stranger away and seeks allies.

The story unfolds around the strands of love, fear, greed and tolerance. Scattered between the present day happenings is the text of Narcisse’s history, gradually told and adding depth. There are obvious comparisons but mostly this older story offers an understanding of the long term repercussions of even the best intended actions.

A story of parents and their children; about the power shifts across generations; of clipping the wings of those who live with a need to soar.

Beautifully written with rich descriptions, especially of chocolate and the magic it can generate. This is a darkly delicious and emotionally satisfying read.

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

Book Review: Rocco and the Nightingale

Rocco and the Nightingale, by Adrian Magson, is the fifth novel in the author’s Inspector Lucas Rocco series of crime thrillers. It is the first to be published by The Dome Press. Set mainly in rural France in the 1960s, the protagonist is a competent and diligent police officer. It is refreshing to read a crime novel with a main character whose work is not affected by troubling personal issues.

The story opens with a murder on a lonely back road near Picardie in 1964. Rocco and his team are called to investigate but can find little evidence other than the body. Just as it looks as though the victim may be identified, Rocco is taken off the case and assigned to protect a senior government minister ousted from the Gabon Republic in central Africa. Unhappy with this new role Rocco can’t quite let the murder investigation go.

Using trusted contacts in Paris, links with a criminal gang and the recent murder of a former police officer come under Rocco’s scrutiny. It would appear that an assassin may have been hired for a series of vengeance killings and Rocco himself could be a target. Although willing to take additional precautions, Rocco does not let this potential threat affect his work. When fellow policemen are gunned down where he should have been the extent of the danger is brought home.

Rocco risks the wrath of his superiors by travelling to other jurisdictions to investigate further. With a far reaching case to solve involving a vicious gang leader out to prove himself and a killer who appears to believe he is fireproof, Rocco’s willingness to follow procedure will only stretch so far. He suspects his superiors of ulterior motives.

Having cut back on the number of crime and thriller books I am willing to read, as so many merged into each other, this story proved worth making an exception for. It is comfortably paced with a good mix of interesting characters. The plot concentrates on solving the crimes without veering into unnecessary subplots such as romance. It is deftly written with enough humour and warmth to balance the gruesome detail of much of the action. Despite being part of a series it reads well standalone.

An engaging police procedural set before many modern methods of crime detection and communication became available. Rocco may enjoy more than his fair share of luck in garnering relevent information and in survival, but this is a well put together, entertaining read.

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