Book Review: Winter Flowers

winter flowers

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 Jeanne has been “waiting for a husband who’s been replaced by a stranger”.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: 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.

Book Review: My Second Home

My Second Home, by Dave Haslam, is the fourth book in the author’s Art Decades series. These beautifully produced mini books explore ‘a variety of subjects rooted in cities’. The latest work focuses on a holiday Sylvia Plath took in Paris over the Easter period in 1956. Her visit was to prove pivotal.

As someone who has visited Paris on several occasions, I have never understood its appeal. Sylvia Plath adored the city and would have liked to live there. The explanation given for her desire to make it ‘her second home’ provided the most convincing reasons I have encountered as to why the place may be regarded fondly.

Sylvia was born and raised in America but, by the mid 1950s, was on a Fulbright scholarship at Cambridge in England. She does not appear to have enjoyed her time there, struggling to make female friends.

Apparently, a young woman who wears bright red lipstick and dyes her hair blonde can’t possibly be taken seriously as a person, let alone a poet.”

Sylvia had been dating Richard Sassoon for some time. Having spent Christmas 1955 with him in Paris – her first visit to the city – he told her they were finished and she was not to contact him again. Her Easter trip was an attempt to see him, to get back together.

Good girls were expected to be decorous, aspiring to marriage and babies. Paris in the 1950s was a  place of ‘expatriates, gay bars, desire, faithlessness and illicit liasons.’ Most visitors experienced only the bourgeois side, never travelling to working-class neighbourhoods. Sylvia was entranced by the literary history – along with the art, theatre and her walks by the Seine. Her mood at the time was crashing between euphoria and despair.

A month before this second trip to Paris, Sylvia had met Ted Hughes for the first time – at a launch party for a new poetry magazine. After her death he would write of her love for the city, which they visited together following their marriage. He derided her ‘manic enthusiasm’ – so different from his more dour perspective.

“He suggests she perceived a fantasy Paris. He lists the sources which had created her sense of the city, including writers in the interwar years like Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. Her Paris, he suggests, was an aesthetic rather than a realistic version.”

From journals and letters written by Sylvia at the time, the author pieces together how she spent each day of her vacation, along with her fluctuating state of mind. Using what is now known about her life and work – before and after Paris 1956 – it may be deduced the influence this trip had on what came next.

“Fate, decisions, a conversation with a stranger, a moment of irresponsibility, someone hearing your faint cry. And opportunities, choices”

The writing is spare yet compelling, a potted biography of a now widely revered young woman that gets under her skin. Sylvia’s life has become legend with Ted Hughes cast as the villain. In this short book the reader may view how she embraced a beloved city and the prospect of freedom it granted. Hers is never, it seems, a truly happy story, but there are moments of sunshine that she pounced on with an exuberance her husband would begrudge and disdain.

A short read but one that deserves to be savoured and will satisfyingly linger. Recommended for anyone with an interest in Sylvia Plath and the times in which she lived.

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

Book Review: Casanova and the Faceless Woman

“However scientific our cast of mind, it always comes down to this, does it not? […] How to get rich and remain forever young. The universal dream of mankind.”

Casanova and the Faceless Woman, by Olivier Barde-Cabuçon (translated by Louise Rogers LaLaurie), is crime fiction set in and around Paris and the Palace of Versailles a few decades before the French Revolution. Its protagonist is Volnay, a serious young man living in frivolous, dangerous times. Granted the title, Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths, after he saved the life of King Louis XV, the local police chief does not appreciate Volnay’s incursion into what he regards as his territory.

Volnay works with a disgraced monk who has an interest in and keen knowledge of the latest scientific thinking. He examines the bodies of the dead in an attempt to uncover clues as to how they met their end. This is the age of enlightenment, although there is wider interest in associated gossip, along with wild exaggeration, than in deduction and proof.

The story opens with the discovery of a body – a mutilated young woman. The skin on her face, palms and fingertips has been removed. When Volnay arrives at the crime scene he is dismayed to find it was the renowned philanderer, Casanova, who first came across the victim. Casanova watches as Volnay removes a letter from the woman’s clothing and is then intrigued when the policeman claims it fell from his sleeve.

This letter proves key to the investigation. Influential and shadowy figures are eager to read what it contains as it affects the dissolute and capricious King. His Majesty’s detractors are seeking ways to bring down the monarchy. Others advise caution until those who would grasp power after such a revolution may be put in place.

Casanova regards his involvement in the investigation as another entertainment, especially when a beautiful young aristocrat, Chiara, shows an interest. Volnay is also drawn to the girl and this unlikely trio find they must share secrets if the case is to be solved and the reason the letter is so sought after understood.

Then another young woman is found dead, with her face removed, this time outside a property used by the King to meet with the young girls he favours. Despite the similarities in the victims’ demises, Volnay is perplexed by the differences. With his life endangered from multiple sources, he discovers that trusting Chiara may have been a mistake.

Although this is crime fiction it will appeal to those who enjoy vividly depicted historical fiction. There are sumptuous descriptions of dress and setting, of food consumed and the decadent lifestyles of those who found favour within the Palace of Versailles at this time. Their wealth and privilege may be contrasted with the dangers lurking in the dark and dirty streets of Paris where penury is widespread. Small coins are earned by whatever means necessary to survive, with little loyalty. Death is common and rarely investigated. Punishments are brutal, meted out to those who would not assist powerful figures whose spies are everywhere.

Volnay is an interesting character although I regarded the romantic element of his story an unnecessary distraction. Casanova’s role is well developed – the reasoning behind his behaviour credible even if his performance abilities are overplayed. As I have little interest in dress and lavish furnishings I found the pace unduly slow due to the many details. It also disheartened me to consider the risks people take with their health in order to achieve what is widely accepted as beauty.

“Nothing of all this was real, or true. It was all a carefully maintained illusion.”

Although well written and structured there were too many elements within the story that personally irritated. I grew tired of the lily white skin, rustling silk and gleam of gilt furnishings. I was curious about the science until the unlikely denouement – again, this flight of imagination felt unnecessary (authors are, of course, free to write as they choose).

For those with an interest in the lifestyles of the wealthy the tale offers a colourful portrayal. Centuries later plutocrats are still seeking personal advantage over the greater good of scientific discovery. Aging is rarely regarded as a privilege with outward beauty highly valued. I may well be taking an entertainment too seriously, but I found this tale depressing.

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

 

Book Review: Paris Echo

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“Who cares about history?”
“We weren’t remembering it anyway. We hadn’t been there – neither had our teachers, nor anyone else in the world – so we couldn’t remember it. What we were doing was imagining it…”

The ideas at the heart of the Age of Enlightenment spread across Europe in the eighteenth century and are credited with inspiring the French Revolution. Paris became a centre of culture and growth that welcomed artists, philosophers, and also an influx of migrant workers. The twentieth century brought further war and division with violent conflict between Jews, Muslims and Christians. Internalised hatred between neighbours was unleashed.

Paris Echo opens in contemporary times. It offers a view of the history of the city from the contrasting perspectives of two recent migrants.

Tariq is a nineteen year old raised in Tangier, a shallow narcissist who cannot look at a female without undressing her in his mind. He is studying economics at college, a route to a better life in his father’s eyes. He has little interest in world affairs but is frustrated with his current life. He decides to escape to Paris where his late mother was born and raised. A non-practising Muslim, Tariq hopes to meet Christian girls who, unlike his female friends at home, behave as he has watched on American TV.

Hannah is an American postdoc researcher returning to Paris after a decade. Her previous visit left her emotionally scarred but, as a historian, the city offers professional opportunities she is eager to utilise. Hannah’s association with Tariq is somewhat contrived but enables the author to construct a story from the points of view of the jaded academic and the naive young man.

“You couldn’t know everything […] there were only degrees of ignorance.”

Tariq secures a low paid job in a food outlet and, once he has landed decent accommodation (however unlikely this may appear), enjoys exploring the city. We see it through his eyes, especially the contrasts with his homeland. He encounters figures from the past and is intrigued. The timeframes are at times inexplicably fluid, history presented as pageant. Tariq’s story is a coming of age.

“This was, so far as I knew, my first attempt at living on this planet and I was making the whole thing up as I went along.”

Hannah spends her days researching the experiences of ordinary women during the German occupation of the Second World War. She listens to recorded accounts of their lives at the time, commenting:

“contemporary witnesses seemed unaware of the meaning of what they’d lived through”

This opinion, that it is historians who ascribe importance, suggests a lack of understanding of the impact of events on individuals and how each must somehow find a way to live with challenging memories.

“this will never, ever go away. Not until every last person who lived through it is dead.”

Hannah meets regularly with an English colleague she knew from her last visit to the city. He grows concerned at the impact the women’s testimonies are having on his friend as her empathy develops. Tariq, for all his insular concerns, can see more clearly yet is not taken seriously. Hannah continues to regard him as he was when they first met.

One of Tariq’s co-workers hates the French for what they did to the Algerians during their battle for independence. Tariq’s lack of knowledge of historical events in Paris and the ripples these caused through time is gradually remedied.

“What, really, is the difference between the commemoration of an atrocity and the perpetuation of a grievance?”

The story is engaging and fluently written with some interesting insights into the conceits of intellectuals and how differing cultures disseminate history. Both Hannah and Tariq become more aware, especially of themselves. Paris, the sense of place, is appealingly presented.

Any Cop?: Although a pleasant enough read this book did not have the powerful impact of Birdsong or Engleby. I would say it is more akin to Charlotte GrayOn Green Dolphin Street or A Week in December. That it mostly avoids character clichés is a notable strength. Despite the occasional structural flaw it offers thoughtful perspectives.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: I Love You Too Much

I Love You Too Much, by Alicia Drake, is a powerful tale of the loneliness of unrequited love. Set in contemporary Paris, its protagonist is Paul, the only son of materially successful beautiful people whose lives revolve around their quest for superficial perfection. Paul’s maman is Séverine who travels the world for her design company. His papa is Philippe who makes his money through financial deals. Both had high hopes for their son, moving house that he may get into a school they could then boast to family and friends that he attended. Despite extensive tutoring Paul failed to gain a place – his parents reacting as to a death. Soon after they separated.

The story opens with the birth of Paul’s sister, Lou, whose papa is Gabriel, an aspiring rock star. Like Paul, Lou will be looked after by Cindy, the family’s Filipino help. Unlike his parents, Cindy allows Paul the comfort food he craves, his only solace from the knowledge that he is a disappointment in every aspect of his life. Paul is regularly made aware that his family cannot boast of his achievements, as their relatives and friends do of their offspring.

When a new girl, Scarlett, arrives at Paul’s school the boys are taken by her brazen attitude and exhibitionism. Soon she is going out with cool kid Stéphane, making out in front of everyone, posting photos of their encounters on social media. When Séverine decides to indulge in a weekend of thalassotherapy, Paul refuses to attend the usual kid’s club at the resort and hangs out with Scarlett who is also there with her parents. They both come from families of high achievers they have failed to please.

Back in Paris, Scarlett starts to spend time with Paul after school. Her friendship is a small light in a life that grows ever more bleak. Philippe, whose family is crushing in their criticism of any who do not conform to their narrow expectations, is caught in compromising circumstances. Séverine is growing tired of supporting Gabriel who is looking elsewhere for his kicks.

The story portrays three generations of admiration seekers and the damage their incessant demands wreak. In gorgeous, devastating prose the reader is led through Paul’s lonely life, his longing for acceptance and support in a world that admires only perceived beauty and the trappings of conspicuous success. He can talk to Scarlett but not about everything. Likewise she is keeping secrets from him.

In the opening pages Paul describes his Paris:

“There are no dirty shoes in the 6ème where I live. There is nowhere to get dirty. There are only pavements and the Jardin du Luxembourg. There is grass in the jardin, but you are not allowed to walk on it.

My Paris is the one same street between school and home. It is grey apartment buildings and heavy wooden doors that you step through into dark courtyards, still and damp where the ivy grows. […] It is empty corridors of polished parquet four floors up and my feet not touching the ground. […] It is many lives lived alone.”

The desire for veneration leads each character to follow destructive paths, and then on to more of the same, their delusions ingrained. Paul recognises the hypocrisy of the demands being made of him but is rendered powerless by his desire for acceptance by those he loves. When Scarlett too appears to turn away, his misery is complete.

This is a stunning work, intoxicating and heartbreaking. A recommended read.

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

Stories from Paris – Guest Post by Alex Christofi

Today I am delighted to welcome Alex Christofi to my blog. Alex’s first novel, Glass (which I review here), was longlisted for the Desmond Elliot Prize and won the Betty Trask Prize. His follow up, Let Us Be True, was published this week (my review is here). In this guest post he shares his thoughts on five real places from the book, and the stories from them that he had to include.

 

While researching my new novel, Let Us Be True, I became fascinated by the history of Paris. Wherever I looked, there were incredible stories to be found, of pioneering gardeners, hidden wine cellars, put-upon architects and bloody clashes in the streets. A few of these stories I couldn’t let go, and they made it into the novel: here are my five favourites.

1 – The Tour d’Argent

Overhead, the clouds bruised and cracked. There was a brief flash of lightning, the thunder inaudible behind the glass. He was in the world’s oldest restaurant, eating duck with a stranger who had just punched him in the head.

This Michelin-starred restaurant lays claim to being the oldest restaurant in the world, purportedly founded in 1582. Their speciality is the pressed duck, which was traditionally eight weeks old, fattened for fifteen days and then strangled, to retain the blood. The wine list is also 400 pages long. It has a great literary heritage, having been referenced not only by Marcel Proust and Ernest Hemingway, but also the 2007 Pixar animated adventure Ratatouille.

2 – Nanterre

Ralf followed the road, hoping to ask someone for directions. Next to the cleared land of the building site was an improvised town, laid out in rows to give the impression of planning, of order – a place where great pride and care presided over mud and scrap metal.

Nanterre is a fascinating place, though a little off the tourist beat. Once an improvised slum (a bidonville or ‘jerrycan town’) housing poor Algerian immigrants, who sometimes found it difficult to rent in the city either because of the cost or because of the prejudices of
landlords, the University of Paris bought a site there and built a huge brutalist campus, a little like the Barbican, but uglier and easier to navigate. The Nanterre campus would be one of the epicentres of the 1968 student protests, which spread and developed over the course of the spring into full blown riots and a general strike, bringing the whole country to a halt.

3 – The Tuileries

‘You know what they do to silk moths?’ said Elsa. ‘They boil them alive and unravel the whole cocoon using tiny looms.’
‘I didn’t know that.’
‘No. All sorts of things have happened here. I think it’s untoward for a garden to have so much history.’

The Tuileries in the centre of the city might look like an oasis of calm, but they are probably the most eventful gardens in the world. Named after the roof tilers that used to work there before Catherine de Medici bought the land, the garden was the site of the one of the first hot air balloon flights. At one point, they were vast royal gardens, and the head gardener decided to grow mulberry trees to foster a domestic silk industry there. Robespierre had a weird secular festival there, burning mannequins that represented an idiosyncratic group of sins (one of them was ‘False Simplicity’). It was a Russian garrison after the fall of Napoleon, and was also, at one point, used to store artwork looted by the Nazis – a Monet was seriously damaged in a shootout during the liberation.

4 – the Pont Saint-Michel

A police van pulled up at the far end of the bridge, and another on their side, at the entrance to Saint-Michel Métro.

An innocuous bridge metres from some of Paris’s tourist hotspots, the Pont Saint-Michel was the site of a terrible massacre of peaceful protesters by the police. On 17 October 1961, men, women and children were peacefully protesting against the curfew that had been set for all Muslim citizens. The Algerian War had been going on for years, with atrocious violence on both sides, and trust between communities was at a nadir. Unfortunately, a sub-section of the police were right-wing nationalists – in fact, the head of police at the time was Maurice Papon, who had collaborated with the Nazis during the war to deport Jews. The police violently suppressed the protest, beating people with long white batons and throwing them off the bridge into the Seine. There is no official death toll, but estimates are in the dozens.

5 – the Tour Eiffel

He looked out at the city. The sun backlit the dark clouds in chiaroscuro and for a moment broke through, catching each drop of rain so that the sunlight fell not just on surfaces but everywhere at once, manifested endlessly through the air.

The Eiffel Tower had to turn up at some point, didn’t it? You can’t visit the city without the tower peeking through the gaps between buildings, especially now that it’s equipped with that bizarre light which seems to have been inspired by the Eye of Sauron. Paris is unimaginable without it, but when it was built, poor Gustave Eiffel was the most hated architect in France. In 1887, a group of writers and artists clubbed together to petition against it, competing to see who could hurl the best insult (my personal favourites are ‘tragic street lamp’ and ‘barbarous mass overwhelming and humiliating all our monuments and belittling our works of architecture’). How times change.

 

This post is a stop on the Let Us Be True Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Let Us Be True is published by Serpent’s Tail and is available to buy now.

Book Review: Let Us Be True

“When he was six years old, he had been taught that compassion was the only quality of any consequence, and tonight he had tied a knot along the smooth train of his life, and it would trail behind him, snagging over rough ground, staring back at him when he stopped to look, no matter how far he tried to pay it out.”

Let Us Be True, by Alex Christofi, is a love story – not a romance but rather a story of survival and its toll. The protagonist is Ralf who meets the beautiful Elsa in a run-down Parisian bar and embarks on an affair.

Ralf was born in Hamburg, the son of Emil – an academic who researched eugenics. Ralf and his mother fled to London as Hitler rose to power.

Elsa, a child of loyal Nazi sympathisers living in Berlin, carved out a life for herself in the aftermath of the conflict. She now seeks excitement but is loath to risk all she has achieved, even for love.

“They had all been prepared to suffer and be ruthless in service of a grand vision of the future, without seeing that all one is left with, in the end, is the past.”

The couple’s backstories provide insight into the life of ordinary Germans between the world wars. Given current events this makes for sobering reading. Emil’s story in particular moved me – a man who produced scientific evidence that nobody was willing to hear.

After serving with the British in the war, Ralf stayed in Paris rather than return to his mother in London. She wished for him to find a wife and raise a family, not appreciating how displaced he felt. In Paris he befriended Fouad, an Algerian Muslim suffering discrimination that the war should have proved indefensible. Fouad’s story is just one tragedy of many told here.

“We may struggle one way but we are all being dragged another by our heritage, by history.”

Ralf falls passionately in love with Elsa but she tells him little of her history or circumstances. When he surreptitiously follows her and discovers the truth it comes at a cost. He descends into a destructive spiral, becoming involved in student agitation, eventually emerging to return to London following the death of his mother.

The writing is poetic in its stark beauty, the phraseology adept and poignant, evoking a past that has been lived, futures lost. The denouement rises from a settling tenebrosity whilst avoiding compromising the preceding character development. Life goes on.

An affecting narrative of studied elegance that seduces the reader despite its dark core. This, his second book, places the author amongst those whose trajectory I will now closely follow. Literature lovers, you want to read this book.

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

Book Review: Her Father’s Daughter

fathers_daughter_web_0_220_330

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.