Tag Archives: The People in the Photo

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?

Books of the Year 2014: Part 1

It’s that time of the year again – best of this and that all over the place. When I did this last year I’d only been blogging for a few months and, foolishly, thought I’d restrict myself to a top six. It didn’t work and the so-called six spilled over into just under twenty so this year I’m spreading things out a bit starting at the beginning of my reading year which got off to a stonking start.

Paperback cover imageBy January 8th I’d already got one very fine read notched up: Michèle Forbes’ exquisitely written debut, Ghost Moth. Set in Northern Ireland, it opens in 1969 and is the story of a marriage told in alternating narratives, twenty years apart. The following week it was Fiona Macfarlane’s first novel, The Night Guest, which opens dramatically with a tiger stalking the Australian beachside house where Ruth lives. Ruth as we soon realise, is demented – a theme which seemed hard to avoid in 2014’s fiction but with its subtle incremental use of suspense McFarlane’s novel stands out for me as one of the better ways of exploring it, and clearly the Guardian First Book Award judges agreed. Unsurprisingly given its centenary year, the First World War provided the backdrop for a plethora of novels from which Helen Dunmore’s The Lie stood out for me. Dunmore, as regular readers may have noticed given that I regularly bang on about her, is one of my favourite writers, sadly underrated. Still in January, Katherine Grant’s Sedition was a treat: a bawdy, rollicking tale, set in 1794 about the subversion of male authority. It’s a hugely enjoyable novel, liberally laced with a ribald, salacious wit underpinned with sufficient sobriety to save it from caricature.

Four picks already, and I’ve only just reached February – a short month and not usually aCover image very exciting one in the publishing schedules or the UK winter, come to that. Louise Levine’s The Following Girls cheered me up with its pitch-perfect satire on adolescent schoolgirl life in the 1970s, replete with period detail and smartarse one-liners but with a nicely honed dark edge. Hélène Gestern’s beautifully constructed The People in the Photo also took me back to the ‘70s with its newspaper cutting from which two people try to trace their history. In this detective story without a detective, Gestern painstakingly leads her readers down a few blind alleys pulling at our heartstrings until Pierre and Nataliya’s stories are pieced together. Finally, at least for this post, but still in February the wonderfully imaginative Helen Oyeyemi gave us Boy, Snow, Bird, a fabulous tale of race and identity with a twist towards the end which will knock your socks off.

That’s my first seven picks of 2014. I’ve come up with twenty-one in all so two more posts in the offing, although it’s only early December: still time for additions.