Back in the summer we were invited to an afternoon Pimms party by a couple of our neighbours. Lovely idea for what was turning out to be sunny summer but sadly when the day came it was the wettest Saturday afternoon in August. Being British, though, we didn’t let a bit of rain get in the way of enjoying ourselves. One of the people I met there was Beatrice Hitchman, author of Petite Mort which I’d reviewed earlier in the year for Nudge and very much enjoyed. I had a lovely bookish chat with Beatrice and her partner Trish. Petite Mort is her first novel, started just before they got together. Inevitably, writers disappear into the worlds they are creating for long periods of time which for Beatrice meant Paris, just before the First World War accompanied by Adèle her movie-obsessed main protagonist. Not the easiest of circumstances for a new partner – either you cope with that level of absorption or you depart – but Trish seems to have entered into it wholeheartedly, enthusiastically supporting Beatrice through years of writing, trying to get published, then promoting the novel not to mention carrying on with the day job. They seemed to me to be a publisher’s dream team. I’m posting this now because Petite Mort was published in paperback last Thursday and will also be serialised on Women’s Hour from Monday. Good luck to Beatrice and Trish – looking forward to the second novel. Here’s my review:
Set in France, just before the First World War, Beatrice Hitchman’s debut novel is a beguiling mix of mystery, love story and scandalous decadence played out against the backdrop of the silent movies’ heyday. It begins as the story of a young girl, determined to find her way into this glittering new world and apparently willing to stop at nothing to do so. Adèle Roux runs away to Paris leaving her young sister at home in their sleepy Languedoc village. Once there, she eventually inveigles her way into Pathé’s studio as a costumier where she becomes the object of her boss’s attentions, later moving into his home on the pretext of becoming the assistant to his wife, a celebrated actress. She seems to be treading what has since become a clichéd path but once installed in the Durands’ house things take an altogether different, then much darker, turn.
Hitchman has put her training as a film maker to good use in this vividly cinematic novel. She opens it with a report in Le Monde of the discovery in 1967 of a Pathé film, Petite Mort, long thought destroyed by the fire which consumed the studio in 1914. The film is complete apart from a single missing frame which has been deliberately cut. The report elicits an approach from Adèle to the eager young reporter asking her to ghost write her memoir. Hitchman uses this device to tell Adèle’s story, weaving the backstories of her main characters through her narrative in a series of flashbacks. From the striking image of the young Adèle watching her first film shown in the rundown village church by her local priest, a man as entranced by this new phenomenon as she is, to the short but gripping court scenes, some made up entirely of dialogue, as the novel builds towards its dénouement, Hitchman projects her story as if on to a screen, fleshing it out with shots of glittering parties and costumiers labouring in sweatshop conditions waiting for their big chance. The two lines of tension running through the novel – the mystery of the missing frame, hotly persued by the reporter Juliette, and the murder mystery which later develops – are neatly tied together in final dénouement which turns everything upon its head in a wonderfully dramatic fashion. Perhaps it is a little too self-consciously filmic at times – even some of the chapter headings read like silent movie title cards – but that said this is a thoroughly enjoyable first novel. Comparisons to The Artist are inevitable, and needless to say Petite Mort is begging to be adapted for the big screen. Let’s hope that it’s an indie film maker rather than Hollywood who gets their hands on it.