If you know more about French poetry than I do which, frankly, would not be difficult, you may well recognise the title of Nathacha Appanah’s The Sky Above the Roof as a reference to Paul Verlaine’s Le Ciel, written when he was in prison. Fortunately, Geoffrey Strachan’s translator’s note helped me out, setting the tone for this careful translation of Appanah’s fable-like story of a lost boy, the son of a lost girl, who takes his mother’s car one night to go in search of his sister and lands himself in juvenile detention.
I couldn’t bear that life, I felt like a wind-up doll in a plastic box that was kept on a shelf and now and then it was taken out, the key was turned and it danced and sang and everyone applauded
Seventeen-year-old Wolf has not seen his beloved sister for a decade when he drives off in Phoenix’s car towards the city his mother came from but has long since left behind. Paloma escaped Phoneix as soon as she could, no longer able to cope with this woman who had kept her children at arms’ length their entire lives. Phoenix was once Eliette, the late child of a couple proud of their extraordinarily beautiful daughter with her angelic voice, parading her before the town, tricked out in makeup and grown-up costumes, seemingly unaware of the increasingly pressing male attention focussed on her. Eliette transformed herself into the tattooed Phoenix, no longer the amenable child she once was, leaving as soon as she could, a trail of destruction in her wake. Now she’s a single mother, closed off and tough, faced with her son’s desperate need for connection. After the eight days of Wolf’s detention, these three wounded souls will be reunited, all of them changed.
There may still be time for this day not to break their hearts, those three
Written in a lyrical rhythmic style, Appanah’s finely crafted novella echoes the words and images of Verlaine’s poem throughout as Strachan elucidates in that helpful translator’s note. The narrative perspective shifts from character to character, unfolding the story of how this family came to be so divided in vivid episodes. Appanah’s characters are beautifully drawn: Wolf is a boy beset with terrible anxiety which only running relieves who feels incomplete without his sister; Paloma has carefully constructed a life that contains her own fragility while Phoenix has exercised an iron control, obliterating all emotion to survive. Its almost dreamlike quality and the beauty of Appanah’s language lends her novella an affecting poignancy, saving it from a bleakness that might otherwise have overwhelmed it. It’s extraordinarily impressive. Kudos to Strachan for his excellent translation.
MacLehose Press: London 9781529408577 144 pages Paperback