January seems to be Delphine de Vigan month for me. This time two years ago I reviewed the gripping Based on a True Story with which I was very impressed; last year’s Loyalties not so much. This year it’s Gratitude and I’m back to being a de Vigan fan. This brief of novellas explores ageing through the story of Michka who’s losing her words and is desperate to repay a debt of gratitude before it’s too late.
So this is what lies ahead for you, Michk’: little steps, little naps, little teas, little trips, little visits. A shrunken, diminished life, but a perfectly ordered one.
Michka lives alone in the apartment where she looked after the little girl who knocked on her door, years ago, hungry and lonely, her depressed mother unable to look after her. Marie lived upstairs from Michka who was initially reluctant to take her in but over the years these two have come to love each other like mother and child. Marie takes to sleeping at Michka’s apartment, becoming anxious as her articulate friend, once a proof-reader, begins to lose her words. Eventually, Michka accepts that she must move to a care home, her treasured independence and privacy lost. She’s bored by the exercises her speech therapist sets her, much more interested in why Jérôme refuses to get in touch with his father. Over the months that follow, Jérôme becomes more attached to Michka and when he learns from Marie that she is trying to trace the couple who took Michka in during the war, saving her from the camps, he sets about finding them.
When I meet them for the first time, I’m always looking for the same thing, an image of the person they used to be
My proof came with a quote singing the praises of de Vigan’s thrillers which I’m glad to see is not on the rather lovely finished copy jacket as Gratitude couldn’t be more different. Michka’s story is told through the alternating voices of Marie and Jérôme interspersed with her own in simple straightforward language which adds to its poignancy. De Vigan explores what it is to lose so much of what you are through Michka’s reluctance to move to the care home and her dislike of the ‘old people’ who live there. Jérôme’s compassion and genuine interest in his patients contrasts neatly with the kindly condescension of the care assistants. Michka’s longing to thank the couple who saved her at great risk to themselves is palpable and its resolution heart warming. Impossible to read de Vigan’s powerful, compelling, novella without being moved to tears.
Bloomsbury: London 9781526618856 160 pages Hardback