Although 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, .