Tag Archives: Emily Boyce

French Rhapsody by Antoine Laurain (transl. Jane Aitken & Emily Boyce): More than just a bit of fluff

Cover imageA few years ago I was sent a copy of The President’s Hat which I quickly dismissed as a piece of fluff, far too whimsical for me. Then, after a few too many literary gloomfests, I picked it up, cynical hat firmly on my head. I loved it, gave lots of copies away and recommended it right left and centre. The next Antoine Laurain to be translated into English was The Red Notebook which, truth be told, was a little disappointing. When French Rhapsody turned up I decided to give it a try more for old times’ sake than anything else. As with the other two novels, Laurain takes a mislaid object and uses it to set in train a chain of events which has surprising results. This time it’s a letter which slipped through the cracks of the French Post Office delivery system.

When Alain Massoulier receives a letter post-marked 1983 he’s first amazed then a tad put out. Alain is a doctor, fifty-two years old and beginning to look dismaying like his father. Thirty-three years ago he and his band, The Holograms, sent a demo tape to Polydor hoping, as so many young bands do, to make it to the big time: the letter is a summons to a meeting with a producer. Alain takes to his bed, ostensibly with back pain but it’s his heart that’s hurting. Once over the initial shock he decides to track down the rest of the band and, many googling hours later, sends off a series of emails. Unsurprisingly, much has changed for the erstwhile band members: the drummer is a contemporary artist renowned for sharpening 30,000 pencils into shavings and selling the result; the keyboard player is running a hotel in Thailand; the bassist is busy rabble-rousing with his new party slogan ‘To the Right of the Right’ and the manager is a respected economist and entrepreneur, unbesmirched with even a hint of corruption. Alain decides not to trace the band’s beautiful singer because she’s probably married and has changed her name – hmm, well this is France and maybe they do things differently there – but she crops up anyway. Put together these characters and you have the ingredients for an enjoyable romp, nicely bookended by a second letter from Polydor.

There’s a rich vein of nostalgia running through French Rhapsody which made me wonder if Laurain might be the same age as his protagonists. He takes cheerful swipes at the art world, middle-aged angst, technology and our preoccupation with fame, saving his sharper barbs for politicians and the far Right giving it an altogether darker edge than the feelgood The President’s Hat. Bang up to date, it’s set in a post-Charlie Hebdo, post-Bataclan – even post-Nice – world and although none of these are mentioned there’s a consciousness of a changed France throughout. Laurain’s characteristic playful humour together with an enjoyable romantic backstory sweetens the pill. Even the political thread ends well, leaving you yearning for a similar resolution in the real world. Well worth reading if you need cheering up despite that dark edge.

The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain (transl. Jane Aitkin and Emily Boyce): A sweet indulgence

Cover imageBack in 2013 I was sent a copy of The President’s Hat. I wasn’t at all sure about it – a bit too much of the whimsy for me it seemed – but it turned out to be one of my favourite books of that year. Not a literary masterpiece but clever, witty and uplifting. So, when I heard that another of Antoine Laurain’s novels had been translated you can imagine my expectations were high. Did the book live up to them? Well, perhaps they were a little too high.

Coming home one morning, in the early hours, Laure is mugged – her stylish handbag, filled with precious irreplaceable things, ripped from her arm. She fights back but is dashed to the ground and hits her head, only managing to get up when the thief is well beyond her reach. What to do? Her keys are gone, along with her money. She manages to persuade the night porter of a local hotel to let her stay there but the next day is taken to hospital, unconscious. Meanwhile, Laurent, a bookseller – divorced but of a similar age – finds an abandoned handbag and takes it to his local gendarmerie where they’re far too busy to deal with the problem but make a few helpful suggestions. Laurent takes the bag home and looks through its contents, a little squeamish at examining a stranger’s private possessions. In it are a red notebook, some photographs, lip balm, a recipe, a few pebbles, a dry cleaner’s ticket for a dress and a signed copy of Accident Nocturne by the notoriously reclusive Patrick Modiano, to name but a few of the capacious bag’s contents. As he examines these, hoping for clues to their owner’s identity, Laurent begins to feel an affinity with her. He wants to give the bag back but with no name and address what’s he to do?

I suspect no one will be surprised by The Red Notebook’s ending but the fun is in how we get there. Laurent proves himself ingenious in his attempts to track Laure down. There are some delightful bookselling passages and a great cameo featuring Patrick Modiano.  The novel ventures once or twice into darker territory but this is a book of sweet indulgence, something to curl up with when you need a bit of cheering up.

A quick scan of the comments below will show you that Claire from Word by Word can share some light on that Modiano connection, and if you’d like to read her review of The Red Notebook replete with a picture of a luscious handbag just click here.

Paperbacks to Look Out For in April 2015: Part 1

Cover imageAs you can tell from the title there are so many tasty paperbacks on offer in April that I’m gong to have to spread them across two posts. Such a shame! I’ll kick off with the novel that will no doubt be top of many readers’ lists, Ali Smith’s Baileys Prize longlisted How to Be Both which alternates between the stories of a Renaissance artist and a contemporary teenager. It was described by the Goldsmith Prize judges as a book that ‘pushes the novel into thrilling new shapes’ and Jacqui’s excellent review at JacquiWine’s Journal has whetted my appetite for it even more.

Less well known but still one to look forward to, Lisa Moore’s Giller Prize shortlisted Caught follows prison escapee David Slaney who embarks on a road trip in 1978 hoping to find a new life, encountering friends, foes, undercover cops not to mention all the weather that Canada can throw at him along the way. I very much enjoyed February, Moore’s sensitive novel about the consequences of the sinking of the Ocean Ranger oil rig in 1982, so I’m looking forward to this one.

My third choice, and another Canadian one, is MiriamToews’ All My Puny Sorrows. Although I was a little underwhelmed by her much-lauded debut, A Complicated Kindness, I very much enjoyed Irma Voth so have hopes for this one which explores the painful dilemma faced by Yoli whose beloved, apparently happy and successful sister has attempted suicide. Is it time to let Elf go? Reviewers described Toews’ writing as exquisite and heart-wrenching.

Earlier this year I read Darragh McKeon’s All That is Solid Melts into Air which felt quite timely set, as it is, in Ukraine. Ten years in the writing, it’s about the catastrophic explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant which resulted in radioactive contamination on a horrific scale made all the more disastrous by the authorities’ attempted cover up. McKeon’s elegantly expressed novel explores the tragedy through the experiences of a doctor, his ex-wife and her child prodigy nephew. Colm Tóibín described it as ‘daring, ambitious, epic, moving’ and I won’t argue with that.

Last, but by no means least for me, is Antoine Laurain’s The Red Notebook. Laurain’s The Cover imagePresident’s Hat was one of my favourite books of 2013. The Red Notebook follows bookseller Laurent Letellier who finds an abandoned handbag containing little but the eponymous notebook. As Laurent leafs through it he becomes increasingly determined to find the woman whose jottings reveal someone he very much wants to meet but with no contact details what are his chances? If this is even half as good as The President’s Hat – and Janet’s review at From First Page to Last suggests it is – I’ll be a happy woman.

That’s the first half of April’s affordable treats. A click on the titles not linked to a review will take you to Waterstones website for a more detailed synopsis, and if you want to check out my April hardback choices here they are. My second post on April paperbacks to look out for will be up in a week or so.

The People in the Photo by Hélène Gestern (transl. by Emily Boyce): A beautifully constructed page turner

The People in the PhotoThe People in the Photo seemed an entirely appropriate novel to read after finishing Ben Watt’s reconstruction of his parents’ story. It begins with a description of a photograph from a local Swiss newspaper: three young people – two men and a woman – are bathed in sunlight against an Alpine backdrop, 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 if you’re the archivist daughter of the woman in the photograph who died when you were four and whose memory has since been shrouded in silence. 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 which need to be filled.

Hélène Gestern’s beautifully constructed novel is a detective story without a detective. She painstakingly leads her readers down a few blind alleys pulling at our heartstrings until Pierre and Nataliya’s stories are finally pieced together while delicately unfolding Stéphane and Hélène’s. Each set of letters, emails and occasional texts is prefaced with a meticulously described photograph, so detailed that you can see it in you mind’s eye, making the characters intensely real. The letters between Hélène and Stéphane are at first formal, then friendly, then flirtatious. The overall effect is to draw you into both stories until you’re desperate to know what happens. To reveal much more would be to ruin it: suffice to say that it has you longing for a happy ending.

This isn’t the first novel I’ve read which begins with a photograph, one way or another.Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance Richard Powers’ Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance uses as its starting point August Sander’s famous photograph taken just before the outbreak of the First World War and Penelope Lively’s The Photograph begins with a widower discovering a snapshot which will lead him to understand that he knew his wife hardly at all. Then, of course, there’s W. G. Sebald (mentioned in The People in the Photo), much admired by H and many others but not for me, I’m afraid.  It’s a clever framework and I’d love to know of any other novels using a similar premise.

The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain (transl. Jane Aitkin and Emily Boyce): C’est tres bien

Cover imageI have to admit I was a little sceptical about The President’s Hat. I thought it might be a tad whimsical for me but it turns out to be an absolute delight from start to finish. It begins with an accountant, a little out of sorts with his job, treating himself to a solitary meal in a brasserie. Just as he is tucking into his plateau royal de fruits de mer, François Mitterrand takes the seat alongside him and begins a conversation with his ex-Foreign Minister sitting opposite. Daniel is thrilled. After Mitterrand has left he collects himself and his belongings only to find that the President has left his hat behind. Rather taken with it, Daniel decides to wear the hat and next day he finds the courage to stand up to his irritating boss. When he forgets to pick it up on a train a young woman on her way to an assignation finds the hat and with it the courage to break off her dead-end affair. Recognising its power, she leaves the hat on a park bench and watches as an elderly man picks it up, sniffs it and puts it on his head. Pierre Aslan, a perfumier, recovers his celebrated nose but loses the hat in a restaurant where Bernard Lavallière, a disenchanted member of the French upper classes, picks it up thinking it to be his own and suddenly finds his inner socialist. Eventually, and satisfyingly, the hat comes full circle. There’s a nice little moral, as there is in all fables, which becomes clear at the end of the hat’s journey.

Gallic Press have done a superb job in the production of The President’s Hat – there’s even an integral bookmark in its jacket. Unusually, the translation is attributed to them and each of the team gets a credit at the end of the book. It’s a technique which works extraordinarily well, giving each individual character and their story a distinct voice. This is a book for summer reading lists, that’s for sure, but the best time to read it would be a wet British weekend when you’re badly in need of cheering up. The Reading Agency has come up with a two brilliant lists of mood-boosting books as an aid to treating depression – I hope they’ll include this joyful, optimistic often very funny book on their next list.