I’m not entirely sure I would have read Jean-Baptiste Andrea’s novella with its rather wordy title had it not been for the enthusiasm of the small indie publisher who approached me to review it which would have been a shame. A Hundred Million Years and a Day was a huge literary hit in France last year. It’s about a palaeontologist who thinks he may have found a clue to the discovery which will enshrine his legacy, hidden deep in the mountains of Southern France, and the expedition that takes him there.
Our fatigue has evaporated, but Gio warns us: it is still there, couching inside our muscles
Stan arrives in a tiny village in July 1954, met by a small reception committee. He’s an important person, after all, an expert in his field albeit a disappointed one. Stan waits for his old colleague Umberto, perhaps reluctant to leave his fiancée. Much to Stan’s annoyance, Umberto arrives with an assistant in tow although Peter proves to be both able and admiring of Stan and his reputation. The fourth member of the expedition is Gio who will guide them through the fierce landscape to the cave where Stan is convinced they’ll find a brontosaurus, a dinosaur whose existence has never been entirely proved. His evidence for this hypothesis is the tiniest of shreds: a fragment of a skeleton shown to him by a child and the story she’d been told by its owner. The four men begin their arduous journey – Stan resisting his fear of heights, Peter entertaining them with the antics of his glove puppet, Umberto stealing glances at his fiancée’s photograph and Gio with his eye on the weather. False starts are made, tempers fray, disappointments are suffered, and worse. Meanwhile the season changes. Against Gio’s better judgement, the expedition reluctantly agrees to continue until a decision must be made.
Each breath is like a thousand white birds with blades for wings
Andrea’s novel is both reflective and page-turning with its exploration of what’s made Stan the lonely, disappointed man he is coupled with the pressing needs of the expedition to make its discovery as the inevitable change in the seasons marches on. Stan narrates this story of dream and folly, friendship and loss, in his own voice, interspersing the expedition’s progress with vivid childhood memories of his controlling, brutal father and the aching loss of his mother whose dream of an illustrious future for him he still yearns to fulfil.
We have left colour behind. Everything is grey, even the colour of the lichen
The writing is striking – beautiful, clean and precise yet lyrical. Andrea is both a movie director and a screenwriter, skills reflected in the cinematic descriptions of the landscape through which the expeditions travels. His novel comes complete with a puff from Carys Davies who dubbed it ‘A sublime and beautiful book’ and I’d have to agree. This is a gorgeously written, gripping piece of fiction. Well worth looking out for.
Gallic Books: London 2020 9781910477830 240 pages Paperback