I’m not entirely sure what made me choose Laurent Petitmangin’s What You Need from the Night. Perhaps it was because it’s been quite some time since I’ve read a French novel, or maybe the cover persuaded me with its laughing little boy on his father’s shoulders although the blurb made it clear it wouldn’t be a cheery read. Petitmangin’s brief novella is the story of a father left to bring up his two sons alone after their mother’s death and the chasm that opens between him and his eldest boy.
Fus was a grown-up from the age of thirteen.
Fus was barely a teenager when his mother was diagnosed with the cancer that took three years to kill her, quietly protective of his little brother Gillou. The family lives in a run-down industrial town in northern France where the father belongs to the Socialist party whose numbers are dwindling. No one votes for Macron in Lorraine but there’s an unvoiced feeling that maybe Le Pen’s ideas aren’t entirely wide of the mark which infuriates the boys’ father. When their mother dies, he continues to take his sons to football matches, sticking with the Sunday ritual of watching Fus play locally. They share memories of la maman now and again but as time passes Fus becomes more withdrawn from his father, Gillou acting as a bridge between them. When his father spots a fascist insignia on Fus’ bandana, he’s appalled but Fus defends his new friends, claiming they help the poor. Father and son withdraw into their corners, Fus still looking out for Gillou, encouraging him in the ambitions their mother had for them both then things take a very dark turn.
For my part, I had the feeling I’d already done a lot, and I was pleased that we could live together without hitting each other.
The unnamed father narrates this story of the consequences of political extremism in simple, direct language which packs a punch. Although set in France, sadly, it feels as if it could have been played out anywhere in Europe over the years since populism has taken hold. Lorraine is fertile ground for the extreme right, short on opportunities for young people who must move away to achieve their ambitions. The small domestic tragedy that overtakes the family lays the ground for Fus to become radicalised, growing up too soon, trying to protect his younger brother while watching his father go to pieces. He’s a decent young man, generous and kind but naïve and lonely, easily corrupted by smooth-talking extremists who appear to have people’s best interests at heart while his father is distracted. A powerful piece of fiction but not one to read if you’re after some easy entertainment.
Picador Books: London 9781529063509 160 pages Hardback (Read via NetGalley)