Tag Archives: Delphine de Vigan

Five Books Translated from French I’ve Read

Since I’ve been blogging my reading habits have changed a little. I’m still reaching for the bright shiny new thing, a habit picked up in bookselling, but it’s now more likely to be short stories or Cover imagesomething in translation than it once was. Not that I’m claiming to read as widely as I should but exposure to the blogosphere has led me to broaden my scope a little for which I’m very grateful. Here, then, is a small sample of novels translated from French that I’ve particularly enjoyed, all with links to full reviews on this blog.

Written in carefully controlled, quietly understated prose Her Father’s Daughter is Marie Sizun’s first novel, published when she was sixty-five. The eponymous daughter is just over four years old when the novel opens, living in cosy, indulgent intimacy with her mother. When her father returns from the war, she finds herself shut out from her parents’ loving reunion. Worse, her father is appalled at her spoilt ways, insisting she learns how to behave and resorting to hitting her when she fails to do so. The child turns in on herself then decides to become the daughter her father wants her to be. All seems well, but when she reveals a secret her world explodes all over again. This is a beautifully expressed piece of writing – spare, wrenching and engrossing, and all the more so for knowing that it’s autobiographical.

Hélène Gestern’s The People in the Photo begins with a description of a photograph from a local Swiss newspaper: three young people – two men and a woman – bathed in sunlight, wearing white and holding tennis racquets. One of the men in the 1971 cutting is named as Monsieur P. Crüsten, enough to begin to reconstruct a story for the archivist daughter of the woman in the photograph who died when she was four. Hélène’s newspaper advertisement in Libération elicits a reply from M. Crüsten’s son, Stéphane, who identifies the third man as his godfather. A correspondence begins between these two, now middle-aged but still left with aching gaps in their own stories. This beautifully constructed novel is a detective story without a detective. Gestern leads her readers down a few blind alleys until Pierre and Nataliya’s stories are finally pieced together while delicately unfolding Stéphane and Hélène’s. The overall effect is to draw you into both stories until you’re desperate to know what happens.

Karim Miské’s Arab Jazz is set in Paris with the odd foray to Brooklyn. Cover imageAhmed becomes aware of something awry when a few drops of blood fall on to his balcony. Using his keys, he enters his neighbour’s apartment to find a particularly grisly murder scene. The hunt for Laura’s murderer takes in a Muslim/Jewish rap band, an ultra-orthodox Jewish Rastafarian, Jehovah’s Witnesses, bent coppers, illicit sky-blue pills and the beginning of a love story. Clues are strewn along the way, clicking the scattered parts of the plot pleasurably into place. The novel has a nice vein of sly wit running through it but its forte is its sharp social observation, taking a scalpel to modern society and its many disparate elements including a well-aimed pop at religious fundamentalism.

Franz-Olivier Giesbert’s Himmler’s Cook is about Rose who, at the age of one hundred and five, has decided to write her memoir and she’s got a lot to get off her chest. Born in a tree somewhere near the Black Sea in 1907, Rose has travelled the world but always returns to Marseilles where she still runs a restaurant. When she’s mugged by a young man she suspects is from a comfortable middle-class home she decides to put the frighteners on him. Rose hasn’t lived through the Armenian genocide in which the rest of her family perished, the horrors of the Second World War when Himmler took a fancy to her, and the miseries of Mao’s Great Leap Forward when she lost her second husband, to put up with being threatened by some young punk, so she does what she always does: takes revenge. There’s a lot of knockabout humour amidst the activities of the various despots Rose encounters making this a thoroughly enjoyable romp.

Cover imageCombining elements of a blockbuster thriller with sophisticated literary debate, Delphine de Vigan’s Based on a True Story is a fiendishly smart piece of writing. Delphine meets a chic, assured woman who engages her in easy conversation at a party, following it up a few days later with an invitation to coffee. L. quickly becomes the centre around which her world revolves. They have so much in common – experiences, books read, films considered formative. When Delphine talks to L. about her writing plans, a debate about fiction and truth is sparked in which Delphine sees a new, angry side of L. As the year proceeds, Delphine becomes increasingly isolated until L. is her only contact with the outside world. Who is this woman who seems to know so much about her life, who turns up unexpectedly and seems to be watching her every move? An absolutely gripping piece of fiction which really is unputdownable.

 Any novels translated from French you’d like to recommend?

Loyalties by Delphine de Vigan (transl. George Miller): Silence is not always golden

Cover imageI read Delphine de Vigan’s Based on a True Story around this time last year and knew it would be one of my books of the year. I was delighted, then, when I spotted Loyalties on the publishing horizon. It tells the story of a young boy, caught up in the fallout from a bitter divorce, and explores the ties of silence that bind society together in a sometimes mistaken loyalty.

Hélène is a teacher with her eye on Théo. He’s too quiet for a twelve-year-old boy, seems exhausted much of the time and has only one friend. She’s convinced he’s being abused, just as she was as a child when she was subjected to systematic beatings by her sadistic father. She begins an investigation, first through official channels then stepping over the line. Théo spends alternate weeks with his mother and father. His mother is consumed with an entrenched hatred while his father slides into a deep depression. Théo has found an escape, drinking with his friend Mathis in the hope of obliterating his pain and anxiety. Meanwhile Mathis’ mother, Cécile, has discovered that her husband has an online identity that fills her with horror. In this brief novella, de Vigan examines how children can lose their way when the adults around them have lost theirs.

De Vigan tells her story from the perspectives of her four main characters giving a first-person immediacy to both Hélène and Cécile, one caught up in her own history the other reeling back from the discovery of her husband’s vile opinions. Silence and compromise are the themes here: Cécile has allowed herself to be remodeled into the person her husband wants her to be; Mathis can’t reveal Théo’s father’s condition because it will humiliate his friend and Hélène’s mother failed to step in to prevent her beatings. Théo’s situation is heart-wrenching, caught between two adults, more parent than child to one of them. De Vigan’s writing is as pinpoint sharp as ever but my expectations were sky-high after Based on a True Story which was breathtakingly good, not a description I use very often smacking as it does of hyperbole. Unfair to make that comparison given how very different in style and subject the two novels are, but inevitable, I’m afraid.

Books of the Year 2018: Part One

Looking back at 2017’s books of the year posts, I see I started with the state of the world and the need for distraction from it. If anything, things seem to have got worse out there but, as Cover imageever, books have provided both escape and enlightenment. H and I are still steering clear of politics over supper although there’s the odd furious outburst aimed not at each other but at the *expletives deleted* who seem to have been calling far too many shots. Anyway, enough of that and on to books. I’ve long since given up trying to curtail these posts so, just to warn you, there will be four of them, all with links to reviews on this blog.

January’s reading started well with Michelle de Kretser’s beautifully crafted, thoroughly engaging The Life to Come which manages to be both funny and poignant as it examines the state of Australia through the stories of a disparate set of characters linked by their relationship to one infuriating woman. Through the stories of Pippa’s friends and acquaintances, de Kretser deftly explores modern life with a deceptively light touch and a hefty dollop of dry, often waspish humour. Barbs are tossed at a multitude of modern obsessions, from social media to faddish food. Throughout it all, de Kretser’s penetrating observation and mordant humour is underpinned with compassion, most movingly so in the final section which explores the loneliness of old age.

Peter Carey’s A Long Way From Home kept me in Australia as it followed the Bobs family, who’ve  moved to Bacchus Marsh in an effort to escape Titch Bobs’ overbearing father, and their neighbour Willie Bachhuber who finds himself navigator in the Bobs’ attempt to win the inaugural 6,500-mile Redex Trial in 1953. Echoing the themes of The Life to Come, Carey’s novel tackles identity, racism, sexism and Australia’s shameful treatment of its indigenous people, all framed within the context of a riveting piece of storytelling with a rich vein of humour running through it. I can’t say that I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Carey but a new novel by him is always worth investigating. My absolute favourite is Oscar and Lucinda, so much so that I’ve read it three times. I can’t quite put my finger on why but there’s something about the tone of A Long Way From Home that reminded me of it despite their very different subject matters.Cover image

January’s third favourite took me to France with Delphine de Vigan’s riveting Based on a True Story. I’m not a thriller fan but metafiction fascinates me which is what attracted me to this novel whose narrator, Delphine, finds her life entirely taken over by a woman she meets at a party. We know from the beginning that L. has had a sinister influence on Delphine, creating a psychological state in which she is unable even to send an email let alone begin her next book. The result is a constant feeling of claustrophobia, persistent doubts and questions. L. is chillingly convincing – manipulative, plausible and ultimately terrifying. Hard to avoid all the clichés associated with the genre when talking about this one  – ‘gripping’, ‘riveting’, ‘unputdownable’ – take your pick. All apply to this fiendishly smart piece of writing which has at its heart a debate about fiction and truth.

February began with Rachel Malik’s Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves based loosely on the author’s family history, making her novel all the more poignant for this is not always a happy story. Struggling to keep the family farm afloat, Elsie Boston takes on a Land Girl. These two find a way to accommodate their very different habits until their lives become so entwined that they leave together when Elsie is forced off the farm. Twenty years later, Rene learns of the death of a close family friend to whom she owes a debt of gratitude. She and Elsie take in Bertha’s ageing, alcoholic husband who sets about disrupting their life. When Ernest finally dies it might almost seem a cause for celebration but then the police arrive. Malik combines quietly understated prose with cinematic, vivid episodes in this touching absorbing novel.

My other February favourite was also a novel based on true events. Hallgrímur Helgason’s The Woman at 1,000 Degrees grew out of a canvassing phone call made on behalf of his partner, a candidate in Iceland’s municipal elections. The third name on his list Cover imageturned out to belong to an eighty-year-old woman living in a garage who kept him talking for nearly an hour. A few years later, Helgason chased down the identity of his late conversationalist to find that she was the granddaughter of Iceland’s first president. Renaming her Herra, both a woman’s name and Icelandic for ‘mister’, Helgason injects a good deal of black humour into a story which spends much of its time exploring the worst of human behaviour, managing to both entertain and horrify as it tells the story of Herra’s remarkable life.

That’s it for the first two months of this year’s highlights. The next instalment covers March, April and May in which one title lives up to enormous hype, another takes me entirely by surprise and a third has quite possibly the longest title I’ve come across in a contemporary novel.

Based on a True Story by Delphine de Vigan (transl. George Miller): Fact or fiction? Truth or lies?

I’m not a thriller fan, although I have been known to read one or two. Metafiction on the other hand fascinates me which is what attracted me to Delphine de Vigan’s Based on a True Story whose narrator, Delphine, finds her life entirely taken over by a woman she meets at a party. Hard to avoid all the clichés associated with the genre when talking about this one  – ‘gripping’, ‘riveting’, ‘unputdownable’ – take your pick. All apply to this shockingly accomplished novel which has at its heart a debate about fiction and truth.

Exhausted after a lengthy author tour publicising her latest book, Delphine finds herself uncharacteristically accepting an invitation to a party. She’s approached by a chic, assured woman who engages her in easy conversation, following it up a few days later with an invitation to coffee. Delphine is preparing to say goodbye to her twins, off out into the world to start their lives. Her lover is often away but like most writers, solitude comes naturally to her and she is just at the point where she is ready to begin her next book. L. quickly becomes the centre around which her world revolves. They have so much in common – experiences, books read, films considered formative. When Delphine talks to L. about her writing plans, a debate about fiction and truth is sparked in which Delphine sees a new, angry side of L. Pure fiction is not what readers want insists L, demanding that Delphine write the ’hidden book’ she mentioned when discussing her last novel, a piece of intimate autofiction. As the year proceeds, Delphine becomes increasingly isolated until L. is her only contact with the outside world. Who is this woman who seems to know so much about Delphine’s life, who turns up unexpectedly and seems to be watching Delphine’s every move?

Combining elements of a blockbuster thriller with a sophisticated literary debate, Based on a True Story is a fiendishly smart piece of writing. De Vigan narrates her novel through Delphine’s voice as she looks back over the year L. insinuated herself into her life. We know from the beginning that L. has had a sinister influence on Delphine, creating a psychological state in which she is unable even to send an email let alone begin her next book. The result is a constant feeling of claustrophobia, persistent doubts and questions. L. is chillingly convincing – manipulative, plausible and ultimately terrifying. This is the hook on which de Vigan hangs a debate about fiction and truth – how much veracity do we as readers expect from our novelists, what do we want in terms of authenticity and to what extent do novelists blur the line between fact and fiction whether consciously or unconsciously. Even now I can’t quite classify this book – thriller, literary novel, autofiction? It requires more than one pigeonhole. Given that it’s a piece of suspense I’ve no intention of revealing the resolution, although that’s to assume there is one which I’m not entirely sure there is. I do have my own theory, though, and I will say that the last two words are breathtakingly, diabolically clever.

Paperbacks to Look Out for in January 2018: Part One

This first batch of January paperbacks kicks of with my book of 2017: Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 which traces the effects of a young girl’s disappearance from a village in the north of England over the course of thirteen years, one for each of her life. The rhythms of the natural world hum through its pages, a background to the small tragedies, joys, disappointments and achievements that make up the villagers’ lives. Beneath it all there’s a consciousness of the missing girl and what may have happened to her. Deeply compassionate, written in quietly lyrical prose and peopled with astutely observed, well-rounded characters, this is a superb novel. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Identity theft seems to be the theme of Delphine de Vigan’s Based on a True Story The person doing the stealing is L., Delphine’s best friend with whom she has become enthralled. L. is the kind of beautifully turned out woman who seems to know what to do in every circumstance. Chillingly, she begins to dress like her new friend, offering to answer her emails and finding her way into every aspect of Delphine’s life until she takes control of it. It sounds quite riveting, and all the more so given that the author has given her protagonist both her name and her profession, not to mention that title. It’s an intriguing idea and I very much enjoyed the somewhat lighter No and Me a few years ago.

Heading further into dark territory, Phillip Lewis’ The Barrowfields tells the story of a family afflicted by tragedy set against the backdrop of the Appalachian Mountains. Lawyer Henry Aster sets up house with his wife and children in a crumbling mansion so that he can take care of his ailing mother. Henry spends his nights writing and drinking, slowly sinking into a deep depression. Years later his story is told by his son, burdened with his own tragedy. Lewis knows how to spin a story, managing to keep my attention over the novel’s 300+ pages despite a few too many Southern gothic touches.

J, Robert Lennon’s Broken River also has a touch of the gothic mashed up nicely with a slice of noir, this time in upstate New York. In a last-ditch attempt to save their marriage, a couple moves to freshly renovated house, taking their precociously bright twelve-year-old with them, Unbeknownst to them, the house has been empty for twelve years since the unsolved murder of the family that lived in it. Lennon’s deftly handled plot revolves around a web of coincidence and misunderstandings which finally unravels. Not an unalloyed success for me but it’s well worth a read.

That’s it for the first January paperback preview. A click on a title will either take you to my review or to a more detailed synopsis, and if you’d like to catch up with January’s new titles they’re here and here. Second batch of paperbacks to follow shortly…

Books to Look Out for April 2017: Part One

Cover imageDespite the many and varied delights on offer in April there’s absolutely no contest as to which of them sits at the top of my list. Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 has already met with a warm reception on social media and this time I’ve no doubt it’s justified. McGregor writes in lyrical, gorgeous prose – contemplative and beautiful. This new novel chronicles thirteen years following the disappearance of a teenage girl on holiday with her parents in the English countryside. One family has been devastated but village life goes on with all its small joys, sadnesses and mundane routines, always with a consciousness of what has happened. This sounds the perfect theme for McGregor whose quietly captivating If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things examined the events of a single day. Apologies for the gush but McGregor’s work is not to be missed. There’s even more gush if you can face it in my first Blast from the Past post which featured his So Man Ways to Begin, another lovely novel.

The theme of Donna Morrissey’s The Fortunate Brother sounds similar to Reservoir 13 in that it explores the aftermath of a tragedy in a small community, this time in Newfoundland. Suspicion falls on the Now family when a body is discovered in the local lake but as investigations progress it seems that there’s far more to the tragedy than meets the eye. ‘Compassionate and wise, beautiful and brutal, The Fortunate Brother is the story of a family and a community in turmoil and confirms Donna Morrissey’s place as one of Canada’s foremost storytellers’ say the publishers. I’m constantly being tempted by Canadian fiction not published in the UK by Naomi over at Consumed by Ink so I think I’ll snap this one up.

More dark secrets and revelations in Elanor Dymott’s Silver & Salt in which Ruthie’s father has Cover imagerecently died, prompting her return to his remote Greek villa from which she has been excluded for fifteen years. She and her elder sister settle into a sort of happiness, putting their dark childhoods behind them until the arrival of an English family and their daughter ’triggers a chain of events that will plunge both women back into the past, with shocking and fatal consequences. Devastating in its razor-sharp exploration of a tragic family legacy, Silver & Salt is the story of two sisters, bound by their history and driven to repeat it’ according to the publisher which sounds like perfect summer reading to me although a little premature.

Chequered family history seems to be something of a theme this April. Edward Docx’ Let Go My Hand explores secrets and lies through the lens of three sons and their father who has asked them to join him on a last journey through Europe. While Louis has his doubts about the idea, his two half-brothers are much more reluctant, unwilling to forgive their dying father his past transgressions. ‘Let Go My Hand is a darkly comic and deeply moving twenty-first-century love story between a son, his brothers and their father. Through these vividly realized characters, it asks elemental questions about how we love, how we live, and what really matters in the end’ according to the publisher. I’ve not had much luck with Docx’ fiction in the past but the idea of exploring the dark family secrets theme from a male point of view is an unusual one.

I have no such doubts about Delphine de Vigan’s Based on a True Story after reading No and Me last year. Identity theft seems to be the much darker theme of this one. The person doing the stealing is L., Delphine’s best friend with whom she has become enthralled. L. is the kind of beautifully turned out woman who seems to know what to do in every circumstance. Chillingly, she begins to dress like her new friend, offering to answer her emails, finding her way into every aspect of Delphine’s life until she takes control of it. It sounds quite riveting, and all the more so given that the author has given her protagonist both her name and her profession, not to mention that title.

Cover imageI began this first batch of April titles with one about which I have no doubts whatsoever but I’m ending it with another that could backfire horribly. Paul Bassett Davies’ Dead Writers in Rehab sees Foster James waking up in a strange house, assuming he’s taken a step too far for his few remaining friends and is back in rehab again. Then Ernest Hemingway punches him in the face, he finds himself in a group therapy session with Hunter S. Thompson, Collette, William Burroughs and Coleridge, later encountering Dorothy Parker. What’s going on? ‘This is a love story. It’s for anyone who loves writing and writers. It’s also a story about the strange and terrible love affair between creativity and addiction, told by a charming, selfish bastard who finally confronts his demons in a place that’s part Priory, part Purgatory, and where the wildest fiction can tell the soberest truth’ says the publisher. Hmm… We’ll see. Great jacket, though.

That’s it for the first part of April’s preview. If you’d like to know more, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis. As seems to be so often the case, part two will have its feet firmly planted in the US.

Books Read (But Not Reviewed) in February 2016

Cover imageBoth novels read (but not reviewed) in February sit in similar territory but each is very different from the other. You may have already read Delphine de Vigan’s No and Me. It was a Richard and Judy choice way back in 2010 so I’m a little late to the party but I can see why they chose it. It’s narrated by Lou, a precociously bright fourteen-year-old with a massive crush on the school rebel.  When her class is set a project of their own choosing, Lou decides to talk about the homeless, asking No, a young woman she’s noticed on the streets, if she’ll take part. Out of this grows a friendship which changes both their lives and helps rescue Lou’s mother from her paralysing grief at the loss of Lou’s sister. It’s a little gem of a book, touching but never sentimental. Not easy to carry off a teenager’s voice well but de Vigan, and her translator George Miller, manage it convincingly.

This one’s also been lurking in the depths of the old TBR pile for a while despite rave reviews Cover imagefrom all and sundry. Akhil Sharma’s Family Life follows eight-year-old Ajay from India to the US as his mother joins his father already ensconced in a job there. Ajay’s brother is all set to take up a place in a prestigious high school when a diving accident renders him irreparably brain-damaged.  What was to be a bright, sunny new life turns into something very different. Narrated by Ajay, it’s an unflinchingly honest book – often very funny, inevitably poignant and made all the more so by the knowledge that it’s based on Sharma’s own life. It look him years to write it – many deadlines missed as he mentions in his acknowledgements – but once published it went on to win the Folio Prize last year of which it is entirely deserving.

That’s it for February. Perhaps March’s adventures in the TBR heap will be a little more cheerful.