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 something 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. Ahmed 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.
Combining 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?