Devils and Saints by Jean-Baptiste Andrea (transl. Sam Taylor): Do as you would be done by

Cover image for Devils and Saints by Jean-Baptiste AndreaaHaving enjoyed Jean-Baptiste Andrea’s A Hundred Million Years and a Day, I was keen to read Devils and Saints, hoping for more striking, cinematic writing. Andrea’s latest novel reminded me a little of Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These, partly because it explores similar themes, partly because it seemed to me to fit the Christmas novel bill. A bit late to being saying that, I know, but there’s still time.

Of all the prophets’ curses, of all the pestilences that ravage the earth, I had been struck down by the worst. I had been orphaned, in the same way that others catch leprosy, tuberculosis, plague.

Joe’s a pianist who plays at airports and railway stations all over the world. His playing is exquisite but he has no desire for an audience: he’s waiting for someone. He has a story to tell but not the willingness to tell it to many. In 1969, he was orphaned, the plane carrying his parents and sister turning into a fireball as he watched from the airport, aged fifteen. Despite his parents’ wealth he’s treated like any other French orphan, sent to Les Confins, an orphanage in the Pyrenees under the draconian rule of Father Sénac and his henchman known to the orphans as Toad. He travels there with Momo, an Algerian who never speaks but clutches his bedraggled toy donkey as if it was a life raft. Joe is used to a privileged life, piano lessons from M. Rosenburg who has fostered his talent while roundly berating him, but things are very different at Les Confins. When the orphanage’s patron hears him playing, Joe’s asked to give lessons to his daughter, as eager to escape her life as Joe. There will be a way out for him but not the one he’d hoped for, and it will take courage.

Maybe he wasn’t born a devil, just a baby like all the others. Maybe he lost his parents, and he was sent to an orphanage, and that’s when he became the devil.

Through Joe’s story, Andrea explores cruelty and abuse meted out to vulnerable young people in care, children forced to endure sadistic punishments under the guise of improvement. His characters are expertly drawn, steering well clear of the sentimental, an easy trap to fall into when writing about young children, all with a sad story to tell. There’s a similar lyrical fable like quality in the writing as I remember from A Hundred Million Years and a Day, although fewer of those strikingly cinematic images but the characterisation more than makes up for that and the ending is edge of your seat stuff, perfect for dramatization. Told with a heartfelt empathy and compassion, the novel’s last page is a poignant dedication ‘To Gérard P, and to all those who were not able to escape’.

Gallic Books: London 9781913547295 235 pages Paperback

Happy Christmas to all of you who celebrate it. If, as it is for many, it’s a more complicated time of the year for you, I hope it passes as painlessly as possible. And for those in the kind of job where you’re still working your socks off – I hope you get some rest before you start all over again. I’ll be back after Boxing Day.

10 thoughts on “Devils and Saints by Jean-Baptiste Andrea (transl. Sam Taylor): Do as you would be done by”

  1. This sounds as if it’s a compelling read, with the extra tug for me being provided by the setting in the Pyrenees, where I lived for seven years. I’ll look for it: though not, apparently, in the library. And I want to take this time of year as the one to tell you how much I enjoy your blog. Your considered reviews do a lot to inform my reading choices. I try not to follow too many book blogs, because the TBA pile would get too unmanageable. But yours is a keeper.. Have a happy Christmas, with at least one book under the tree!

  2. Sounds a heart-wrenching read, but a relevant one all the same. Its sad to think what people re put through in the name of protection–in any facility. And things seem to be the same across the globe.
    Wishing you a Merry Christmas and happy holiday!

    1. Yes, some terrible things have been uncovered about abuse but at least they’ve been aired and everyone is aware of them.

      And to you, Mallika! Hope you manage some quality reading time.

  3. I’m glad you enjoyed this too. I’d been holding back reading your review until I’d written my own. I think your comparison with Small Things Like These is an apt one. What I particularly liked about Devils and Saints is the way the author deals with a serious subject but injects the story with humour. The orphanage boys were such wonderful characters, weren’t they?

    1. Yes, I’d agree about the humour. It’s a very dark subject but Andrea manages to keep you engaged, not least by his excellent characterisation. The dedication at the end makes it all the more poignant. Very pleased it hit the spot for you!

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