Tag Archives: French fiction

Her Father’s Daughter by Marie Sizun (transl. Adriana Hunter): A sharply poignant gem

Cover imageAlthough I’ve read several books published by Peirene – including the dazzling poetic White Hunger, set in a savagely cold Finnish winter – this is the first I’ve reviewed. For readers who haven’t yet come across them, Peirene publish novellas in translation, dubbed by the Times Literary Supplement ‘Two-hour books to be devoured in a single sitting: literary cinema for those fatigued by film’, a quote which they proudly include in their marketing material – and who wouldn’t? They publish three books a year each fitting a particular theme; Her Father’s Daughter is part of the ‘Fairy Tale: End of Innocence’ bundle. It’s Marie Sizun’s first novel, published when she was sixty-five, and it’s an autobiographical one.

The eponymous daughter, named France but known throughout as ‘the child’, is just over four years old when the novel opens. She lives in cosy, indulgent intimacy with her mother, regularly grumbled at by her grandmother. As the war she’s heard so much about on the radio draws to a close, it seems that her father will be coming home, something she finds deeply unsettling. When she visits him in hospital she’s horrified to find herself shut out from her parents’ loving reunion. Worse, when her father comes home he’s 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 upon herself, closes down her emotions, watches her parents and comes to a new understanding of the world. When one day she sees the first flash of tenderness in her father, she decides to become the daughter he wants her to be. So begins a new relationship which tips the child’s balance away from her mother towards her father. All seems well, but there’s a secret she has to tell, something that happened in Normandy when he was away, something that her mother and her grandmother insist must have been a dream. When she reveals it, not understanding its significance, her world explodes all over again.

Her Father’s Daughter is written from the child’s point of view in carefully controlled, quietly understated prose. The sensuous intimacy between the mother and daughter is vividly conveyed, contrasting shockingly with the violence of the father’s outbursts. There’s an intense immediacy to Sizun’s writing, sharpening the effect of the child’s stark observations. Her bewilderment at the unpredictable, puzzling behaviour of the adults around her is discomfiting, at times heartrending and made all the more so by the knowledge that this is an autobiographical novel. It’s a beautifully expressed piece of writing – spare, wrenching and engrossing. The ending, which has the adult France visited by an insight into her feelings for her father, seemed a little unconvincing but given those autobiographical roots, I can only hope that it was heartfelt.

I read Her Father’s Daughter just before the launch of Women in Translation Month which several bloggers I visit have been eagerly anticipating for some time. Should you want to know more you might like to explore #WITMonth on Twitter or take a quick trip to JacquiWine’s Journal where you’ll find a page devoted to the initiative, chock full of great reviews, .

Himmler’s Cook by Franz-Olivier Giesbert (transl. by Anthea Bell): A romp through twentieth-century misery

Cover imagePerhaps it’s because those of us in the privileged developed world are living longer – that and the advent of a new century – but there seems to be a little trend for novels written from the point of view of a centenarian bystander, someone who’s rubbed shoulders with those who’ve shaped our world for good or ill: Any Human Heart, The End of Days and The Hundred-Year-old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared spring to mind. Himmler’s Cook, is another along these lines and it was this that made me pick it up although its clever jacket was another draw. At the age of one hundred and five, Rose has decided to write her memoir and she’s got a lot to get off her chest.

Rose makes no bones about other people: she can’t stand complainers as she says from the start. When she’s mugged by a young man calling himself the Cheetah, she suspects he’s from a comfortable middle class home and 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. 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 having learnt the joys of cooking from her adoptive mother. She’s a believer in ‘the forces of love, laughter and vengeance’ easing the pain of tragedy by means of her beauty and wit to extract the latter while enjoying the former to the full. Giesbert takes his sassy heroine from her early years in Armenia to her confrontation with ‘the Cheetah’ – aka Ryan – after his second transgression, taking in a good deal of blood-spilling, cooking, lovemaking and adventure, not to mention a surprisingly long passage on sheep castration, along the way.

Already a bestseller in France, I suspect Himmler’s Cook is aimed firmly at the Jonasson market here in the UK. Rose is a vividly memorable character, announcing ‘History is a bitch’ then going on to explain just why. Her favourite song is The Jackson Five’s Can You Feel It? and she’s a great admirer of Patti Smith. She believes in living each day as if it’s her last, proclaiming ‘rid yourself of self-esteem or you will never know love’ despite her own supreme self-confidence. Well known names pepper her narrative – Sartre and de Beauvoir regularly dine in her restaurant, Himmler’s bewitched by both her body and her food while Felix Kirsten advises her on how to handle Hitler’s police chief. There’s quite a lot of knockabout humour amidst the genocidal activities of the various despots she encounters. Altogether an enjoyable romp although I felt that Giesbert skated over Rose’s long Chinese sojourn, cramming it into a few short chapters. There’s a lovely description of her adoptive mother that those of us who feel they should read less and get out more will appreciate: ‘ she had never travelled further afield than to Manosque, but thanks to the books she read she had lived a full life.’ Quite so.