findingtimetowrite

Thinking, writing, thinking about writing…

Gardening as a Way of Life

JS2After killing off countless plants and pulling out tender shoots instead of weeds, I have to admit that I am not the world’s most gifted gardener. In fact, I probably have black thumbs instead of green fingers. But that does not stop me from admiring other people’s gardens and over the Easter weekend we had the good fortune to discover a most amazing Secret Garden. It is tucked away in a small village called Vaulx, not far from Annecy in Haute Savoie.

The garden is not only a profusion of colour, scents, sounds and shapes, but also a labour of love. And like all the best gardens, it also has a story behind it: the story of an affectionate, hard-working and profoundly creative family. Alain and Nicole Moumen were trained in psychology and education, but in 1980 they opted for a simpler life in the countryside. They bought a dilapidated farmhouse on a large piece of land, moved in there with their three daughters (then aged 11, 12 and 14) and started their own furniture-making and painting business.

JS6They didn’t know anything about gardening, so they taught themselves over the years. Some knowledge was gleaned out of books, some through experimentation. Every member of the family (even the grandchildren nowadays) contributed to some aspect of the garden, which was only intended for personal enjoyment. Their originality shows in every corner of the gardens: this is a treasure chest of carpentry, metalwork, sculpture, mosaic, as well as planting. Alain even created his own material, a sort of clay which can be easily moulded into any shape and which he has used extensively for the fountains and walls. Meanwhile, Nicole is great at recycling, giving new life to reclaimed objects.

JS7It’s a garden that would make traditional/professional gardeners groan, as it breaks all the rules, but it is a fantastic, quirky place full of secret nooks and crannies, that takes forever to explore and is a delight for children of all ages.

JS9In 1994 Alain was persuaded by his furniture-buying clients to open the gardens to the public, but he has continued adding to the gardens every year. And the family is still very much involved in the whole process, with only two additional gardeners to help them. In the summer months, there are concerts and refreshments in the main courtyard, and Alain is often to be found preparing doughnuts for visitors. [My kids pronounced them to be absolutely delicious, incidentally!]

JS4Nicole wrote a book about their experience, entitled “Secret Gardens, Life Secrets” and she says: ‘We thought we were making a garden, but in fact the garden made us.’ We were captivated by the charm and variety of the gardens, but even more so by the courage, originality and good humour of this family. I will definitely be back!

 

 

The Moumen Family

The Moumen Family

Poetry Review: May Sarton

MaySartonMay Sarton did her best to become a household name. At her death in 1995, she had written 53 books: 19 novels, 17 books of poetry, 15 nonfiction works including her acclaimed journals, 2 children’s books, a play, and some screenplays. She ran away to join the theatre aged seventeen, went bankrupt and switched to writing, was friends with Elizabeth Bowen, had tea regularly with Virginia Woolf, translated from the French with Louise Bogan. Her early work was highly acclaimed, then she fell out of fashion, though never quite out of print. Her reputation spread more through word of mouth, on college campuses and amongst feminists (especially after she came out as a lesbian in 1965). Towards the end of her life, she became better known for her frank discussion of loneliness and aging in her non-fiction.

And yet she is relatively little-known outside the world of poets and feminists. Gertrude Stein, with her meagre output and difficult style, is better-known as a grande dame of literature than May Sarton. Sarton herself blamed this on her refusal to ‘play ball’, because she did not buy into the academic world of teaching poetry or do the rounds at writers’ conferences. However, as I read her collected poems, I also thought that maybe her poetic style has something to do with it.

Her style is too simple (deceptively so), for those who like their feelings to be raw and overpowering, or else carefully hidden in layers of metaphor. She is not experimental or loud. In fact, she reminds me of a favourite middle-aged aunt: at one with nature, supremely cultured and civilised,  a delightful conversationalist, but a bit old-fashioned and unadventurous in poetic form. Yet a multitude of emotions – all human emotion – is contained within the seemingly tame confines of her verse.  All of the big themes of life: truth, beauty, love, loneliness, fear, ageing, illness are treated here. They are just not paraded about on a baroque stage, carrying out elaborate theatrical gestures.

There is pure joy at loving and being loved, careful observations of nature:

And then suddenly in the silence someone said,

“Look at the sunlight on the apple tree there shiver:

I shall remember that long after I am dead.”

Together we all turned to see how the tree shook,

How it sparkled and seemed spun out of green and gold,

And we thought that hour, that light and our long mutual look

Might warm us each someday when we were cold.

And I thought of your face that sweeps over me like light,

Like the sun on the apple making a lovely show,

So one seeing it marveled the other night,

Turned to me saying, “What is it in your heart? You glow.”

Not guessing that on my face he saw the singular

Reflection of your grace like fire on snow -

And loved you there.

CollectedPoemsMany of her poems are love poems, and also suffused with prayer and spirituality, which perhaps are topic which have fallen slightly out of fashion. Her emotions are carefully restrained and calibrated, rather than given free rein: the ‘stiff upper lip’ is perhaps not perceived as an asset in poetry. And of course, she loved classical poetic forms, although she was able to (and did, on occasion) write exhilarated bursts of free verse. In an interview, she talks about the power of metre and beat in poetry: ‘The advantage of form, far from being “formal” and sort of off-putting and intellectual, is that through form you reach the reader on this subliminal level. I love form. It makes you cut down. Many free verse poems seem to me too wordy. They sound prose-y, let’s face it…. Very few free verse poems are memorable.’

There is indeed great musicality in her poetry, as well as references to music throughout:

We enter this evening as we enter a quartet

Listening again for its particular note

The interval where all seems possible,

Order within time when action is suspended

And we are pure in heart, perfect in will.

Some poems (especially later ones) seem little more than jotted down observations, and she does not always resist the temptation of a lazy cliché or facile rhyme. At times, she even has a tendency to preach (in her poems written at the time of the Vietnam War for instance). Yet there is no doubting the sincerity of her introspection, her powers of observation of nature, or how seriously she does take her poetry. Some of her descriptions of the essence of poetry will make any poet shiver in recognition:

It is not so much trying to keep alive

As trying to keep from blowing apart

From inner explosions every day. [...]

Prisoner at a desk? No, universe of feeling

Where everything is seen, and  nothing mine

To plead with or possess, only partake of,

As if at times I could put out a hand

And touch the lion head, the unicorn.

Not showy, not immediately life-changing, but the kind of poetry that seeps through your pores gradually. I’m glad that Open Road Media are reissuing her Collected Poems. I’m also curious to read her journals now and hope they are still in print. The kind of writing to savour, to dip in and out of, like going to have tea every week with your favourite aunt.

One interesting final point about the difficulty of reading poetry ebooks.The publisher comments on this in the introduction: how, because of the shape-shifting qualities of electronic type, it is hard to see the exact visual layout of lines as the poet imagined them. I also find it much harder to remember certain poems or find them again to quote from them. I think I will stick to print copies for poetry collections of more than 1-2 poems in the future.

 

What Got You Hooked on a Life of Crime, Margot Kinberg?

Good morning, everyone, and hope all of you had a good Easter (if you were celebrating) and at least enjoyed a bit of a longer weekend even if you were not! I am delighted to be back with a new feature. As we were discussing Flavia de Luce last week at the web-based Crime Book Club, the brainchild of the delightful and energetic Rebecca Bradley, it suddenly occurred to me:  I would like to find out more about my fellow crime fiction lovers, what got them interested in this genre and what other books they like to read in their ‘spare’ time. So every fortnight or so I will interview one of my online friends and bloggers about their reading preferences.

Margot Kinberg by www.studiocarre.com

Margot Kinberg by http://www.studiocarre.com

I am starting today with someone whom many mystery fans will know, for she is a walking encyclopaedia of crime fiction lore, a mystery author in her own right, an indefatigable blogger and one of the nicest, most supportive people I’ve met online. I give you the one and only: Margot Kinberg.

How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

It all started innocently enough. Some Sherlock Holmes stories in elementary school (I blame my Language Arts teacher), and a few Nancy Drews. What harm could that do? But then I started reading some other mystery series and I was in trouble. The turning point came when I received some Agatha Christie novels as a gift. After that, there was no hope for me. I don’t think there’s a recovery program for crime fiction addicts… ;-)

Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?

I’m actually pretty eclectic. To tell you the truth, it’s probably easier to ask which ones I don’t prefer. I really don’t like reading truly brutal serial-killer novels. There are a few I’ve read that are good, but in general, something really gory  is likely to put me off. The same is true at the other end of the spectrum. I don’t care much for ‘happy, frothy’ kinds of cosy mysteries, particularly if there’s too much emphasis on a romance and not much on the mystery plot. Other than that, I’m usually willing to try a wide variety of crime fiction. 

What is the most memorable book you’ve read recently?

That would be Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark. I’m still reflecting on it even a week after I finished reading it. She is one of my favourite authors, and her work always has a profound effect. This one is no different. It’s a novel of psychological suspense as much as it is a crime novel, and explores several other aspects of human life too. Highly recommended.
If you had to choose only one series or only one author to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?
 Oh, that is such a difficult question! There is far, far too much crime fiction that I would hate to part with. If forced to, though, I would probably choose Agatha Christie. Her work has inspired me, and she wrote such a diversity of different kinds of stories. But I would have to insist on the entire collection of all of her work, including her novels as Mary Westmacott. And unless I was caught, I’d probably sneak some other books along too, wherever I could hide them.
What are you looking forward to reading in the near future?
Coming up soon is Geoffrey McGeachin’s St. Kilda Blues, the third in his Charlie Berlin series. I’m very much looking forward to reading that. I’m also looking forward to reading Ann Cleeves’ new Vera Stanhope and Jimmy Perez novels. Oh, and there’s Mari Strachan’s second novel Blow on a Dead Man’s Embers. That’s also on my must-read list. So is Michael Connelly’s The Gods of Guilt (I’m a Connelly fan). There are a lot of others, too, but that’s a partial list anyway.
Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?
I like historical fiction, and in that genre, I always recommend Edward Rutherfurd. James Michener too, for those who haven’t read his work. Kate Grenville’s historical fiction is also terrific. As far as non-fiction goes, I’m a fan of the work of Jonathan Kozol, who for the past forty years has written some brilliant work about education and literacy in the US, and the impact that social class and race have on a child’s chance at educational equity. It’s hard-hitting and eye-opening. I could keep going on, but that’s at least a tiny smattering of what I read outside crime fiction.
Thank you, Margot, for taking part. Quite a few surprising answers there, even though I thought I knew your reading preferences quite well. Hope you all enjoyed this as much as I did! And let me know if you would like to take part in this. I’m a real old Nosey Parker when it comes to finding out what people like to read.

 

 

Self-Portrait, Warts and All

MarinaPicSort of a prose poem really, which came out of being asked to do a self-portrait for dVerse Poets Pub. Third person, of course, as befits any bio written for the corporate world… although I doubt I’ll be making use of this one in the near future. 

There was a young lady of Bucharest

Who was searching for a good place to rest

‘A lot I have seen,

I’m betwixt and between,

There’s no single place I like the best.’

Gawd, what a drama queen! No one has known the trouble she’s seen… because she marched in revolutions, was shot at, moved often. Because she was the precious, unique, rare jewel of an only child. Oh, sure, polished all the rough corners out of recognition by parents who had come so far they’d forgotten. Or feared the past would catch up to embarrass them. Suffocation of eyes attached to one’s shoulder, nose to the grindstone. Musty odour of academic success, sharp sniff of disappointment when early stardom turned to suburbia and monotony of housewifedom. Motherhood still warring inside me. Laziness has now enveloped my muscles, sinews, brain. Skin too thin, patched together to cover the gaps with a rough worsted in attempt to be jolly.

Not allowed to keep cats or sit on toilets for hygienic reasons, she nervously does both today. Do I detect a tendency to blame others for falling short? Dreaded word: expectations. Lofty and absurd. The wrong passport, attitude, husband, career path.  Always wiser five steps after the event. Wrong kind of mind, too perpendicular.

She sits in laundry like a queen of discontentment, pontificating about what could have been if she had been … and seen… but never done. Bastard of many cultures, home in all and none. Dreaming in tongues, limber and crafty, mistress in none.

 

 

Nostalgic Moment: Happy Easter!

Easter is the biggest annual celebration in the Greek Orthodox church, so at this time of year I tend to get rather homesick. I failed to find the right kind of dye (traditionally, it should be red) for my Easter eggs this year, so I’ll have to make do with these beautiful images from home. Happy Easter to all of you who are celebrating this weekend!

welcome2romania.wordpress.com

welcome2romania.wordpress.com

360romania.com

360romania.com

info-pitesti.ro

info-pitesti.ro

 

Three Book Reviews: A Matter of Empathy

Perhaps it’s a sign of growing older, but I find it easier to relate to something or someone in most books nowadays. I can even empathise with characters described as ‘weak’, ‘silly’ or ‘unlikeable’. Perhaps because I am that myself! At least part of the time… Perhaps we are all much more fragmented, at conflict, darker, ineffectual than we like to think. Perhaps there are masks which we never take off, even in the privacy of our own rooms, for fear that we have to face a gawping void in the mirror. So here are three books I’ve finished recently, and I freely admit that all of them contain elements that I can relate to.

Photo credit: Lisa Cohen, www.salon.com

Photo credit: Lisa Cohen, http://www.salon.com

Claire Messud: The Woman Upstairs

Nora Eldridge is full of anger: from the spilling, thrilling outburst at the beginning to the more constructive anger at the end of the novel. She spouts invectives and hints at bleeding wounds, but then the style calms down a little. She becomes once more the ‘woman upstairs’, which in the author’s interpretation is not the ‘mad woman in the attic’ (the uncontrollable feminine power), although of course it slyly references that. In this case, it is the unobtrusive, undemanding, invisible neighbour that you barely speak to, who never complains, who lives in the service of others. So this book is a revolt of the meek. No more little nice girl! Anger becomes a productive force, as, in the wake of disappointments, failures and betrayal, Nora becomes convinced that the best revenge is to show others what she is capable of.  She will discard the paralysing sadness and fear or cautiousness which has limited her life thus far. She has spent too long in the Fun House, hoping to find the exit to an authentic life, and seeing nothing but doors closing one after another. Nora will become as ruthless and single-minded as is necessary to pursue her artistic ambitions:

I’m angry enough, at last, to stop being afraid of life, and angry enough – finally, God willing, with my mother’s anger also on my shoulders, a great boil of rage like the sun’s fire in me – before I die to fucking well live. Just watch me.

While this life-affirming finale is uplifting, I can also see how the rest of the novel could be unappealing to an American audience. The weakness, ineffectual dithering and self-obsessed over-analysis of the main character with her rant of self-pity is a taboo in American society, with its emphasis on taking action, positivism, the ‘you are what you think’ outlook. Nora is not old, but she is starting to resign herself to an unproductive, unfulfilled life, especially in the stifling world of pretentious academia and modern art around Boston and Cambridge, Mass. The descriptions of her small shoe-box creations and the contrast to her friend Sirena’s grandiose, over-the-top installations are more than a little tongue-in-cheek. Are they really innovative, or just jumping on the fashion bandwagon? And the name Sirena itself: surely not a coincidence, reminding us of the dangerous, addictive song of the Sirens. To guard against it, Odysseas has to tie himself to the mast and plug his sailors’ ears with wax.

One other criticism of the book that I’ve come across is that, while it is beautifully nuanced and well written, nothing much happens, i.e. it is too literary. However, I found it exciting, beautifully paced in crescendo, with a dark sense of menace. Something bad is going to happen, but who and what will provoke it?

My-Criminal-WorldHenry Sutton: My Criminal World

This will have writers of all persuasions, but especially crime writers, squirming in recognition. Poor David Slavitt is a mid-list author, whose popularity is dipping, slaving over his latest over-due novel, intimidated by the successes of his academic wife and the disdain of her colleagues. Agent-pecked as well as hen-pecked, he goes about his everyday tasks, trying to sort out plot twists between bouts of laundry and childcare, balancing his anxieties about the required level of goriness in his novels with worries about his wife’s possible infidelity. At times his mild ineffectuality and ego are so exasperating that you are willing him to confront his wife openly about adultery. You find yourself hoping that he will act out on his murderous tendencies. The interviews at the police station, in which David is more concerned about his writing career than in proving his innocence, are absolutely hilarious.

‘We’re talking about Julie Everett, your literary agent?’

‘Yes. Though, frankly, I’m not sure for how much longer. As I think I implied earlier, my career’s not going brilliantly at the moment. I narrowly missed winning a big award. And Julie’s not very keen on what I’m currently working on. [...] She doesn’t think I’ve been promoting myself properly. You see, the market’s changed a lot recently.[.. .] And I suppose, to be honest, I’ve made a few mistakes.’

Although the ending felt a little forced and rushed to me, I found this to be a nuanced and very funny novel, not taking itself too seriously, yet with a rather profound underlying message about insecurity, delusion and reality.

StelaBrinzeanuStela Brinzeanu: Bessarabian Nights

You may wonder what I recognise of myself in this sad story about sex-trafficking of women by a Moldovan writer now living in London. It is not the beautiful Ksenia (the girl that is forced into prostitution while on holiday in Italy) that I identify with, but with her ‘blood sister’, Larisa, who is studying in England. Together with their third childhood friend, Doina, she moves heaven and earth to find out what has happened to Ksenia when she goes missing. Larisa represents a cultural bridge between East and West, feeling equally out of place in both worlds, repelled by the backward superstitions in her home country (described as a place where men are either drunk or violent or frequently both), yet not quite fully accepted or integrated into the new culture.

The British TV drama ‘Sex Traffic’ (2004) did a fantastic job of showing both the individual stories of two Moldovan sisters and the global tentacles of the human-trafficking business. However, not all that much has changed since then.  Human trafficking continues to be a major problem in Moldova and, although the government has recently cooperated more with NGOs to tackle the issue, it does not comply with minimum standards for eliminating trafficking. So this is an important story which needs to be heard. Again.

The title is a play on the ‘Arabian Nights’ theme, and Brinzeanu does come across as a Scheherazade of our times, eager to share stories about her little-known country on the fringes of Europe. This is a debut novel and the author is so brimful of stories that the book feels crammed with facts. The reader may well feel at times lectured at, even if it is disguised as dialogue. The book is at its most successful in those dream-like flashbacks describing the girls’ childhood in a Moldovan village where time seems to have stood still. Perhaps, like Scheherazade, the author needs to learn to select the most relevant scenes and polish those to perfection. There are a lot of gems in there, but they sometimes get lost in the multiple anecdotes.

So over to you, dear reader! Are there any books that have particularly resonated with you lately, any characters you have related to, or does an unlikeable character make you want to stop reading? 

 

 

 

 

The Goat: dVerse Poets Photo Prompt

Intriguing, unusual and slightly nightmarish… the photos by Phyllis Galembo of masks and rituals are an anthropologist’s treasure trove. Anthony Desmond over at dVerse Poets is encouraging us to use one of those pictures as a prompt for exploring our own masks and underlying boldness. For me, the image below evokes an annual Romanian New Year’s tradition known as CapraThe Goat Dance.

Water Buffalo Devil in Africa

Water Buffalo Devil in Africa

‘Vine capra, vine capra!’

We waited in vain, my cousins and I. There was no goat dance for us that night.

They came in the morning, in the ice-encrusted dawn hours.

‘It gets earlier every year,’ grumbled Uncle Ilie.

But he shrugged on his sheepskin coat and went to open the gates.

The yard filled with men, stamping, drumming.

A squeaky accordeon player stood a little aside to avoid the kicks,

the prancing, the clattering jaws of the goat.

They spoke words we could not fathom, sense now lost, left only rhyme.

Caught up in frenzy of voices, we waved our arms like windmills, tried to catch

the gauzy frills or greasy kid fur,

tried to match it jump for jump,

little knowing that the devils we were chasing

were far too deep within.

 

The Sound of Rain

rainI cannot stop the rain

it pours straight into me

through lightly-stabbed holes in my clingfilm.

 

I despise the British drizzle,

that mealy-paced drip

of convictions skin-deep.

There are obvious parallels

with acknowledged tear drops,

cycle of perdition, repetition, hum-drum…

Give me bursts of whip-flash

boil over gurgling of resentments

in fierce downpours

drops as big as fistfuls

punching to my gut to bring back

the smell of paddy fields,

that eternal wombish damp.

 

rainstormBe Latin! Uncontained! Dramatic!

Misunderstood                 theatre                 maligned

Be a storm of epic sounds:

sudden, surprising, outrageous!

Stop being

safe gully to the stars.

Unsupportive Families

A while ago I wrote about the wry amusement I felt when reading about ‘supportive spouses’. Perhaps writers feel the need to make such a fuss over them (and other supportive family members) when they are endowed with such a person because they know how often that is not the case. Treasure your rare speciman (usually a speciwoman).

michele_robertsI attended a workshop with the very poetic, sweetly unassuming yet still fiercely feminist writer Michèle Roberts at the Geneva Writers’ Group this Saturday. In a private conversation, she too confirmed that family and close friends are sometimes the least supportive of our writing. Could it be that they fear they lose us when we enter that door into fearful magic and fluid morals through which they cannot or will not follow? Or is it simply more practical, immediate needs which they feel are not being met: cooking, cleaning, admin? I can understand the fears at the uncertainty of outcome or the financial constraints. But to belittle the writing, to see it as a time-consuming hobby, which you should set aside when the ‘real issues of the day’ crop up… that is hard to swallow.

Yet that is precisely what Jane Austen did, hiding her manuscripts when visitors dropped in, as they did so often. You can barely hear the frustration in her perfectly controlled prose, but there are scenes of satire (of garrulous and silly neighbours) in every one of her books, or spirited defence of novels in ‘Northanger Abbey’.

A novel I recently read, Henry Sutton’s ‘My Criminal World’, portrays the dilemma of writerly anxieties and insecurities, especially when faced with the indifference of far more successful spouses, from the man’s point of view. This insecurity may drive a mild, rather ineffectual crime writer to contemplate a real crime. The hurt is clearly visible, under the thick layers of self-deprecating humour, and I’m not sure I quite believe the ending of the book, because I have grown to dislike the writer’s wife so much.

womanupstairsOne of the extracts that Michèle Roberts read to us was the beginning of Claire Messud’s book ‘The Woman Upstairs’ and I was so struck by it that I bought it as soon as I got home. That unforgettable opening: ‘How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.’ I have yet to finish the book and see if it lives up to that opening, and I’ve certainly heard many readers have been put off by it. ‘Show don’t tell’, they bleat like Easter lambs, but is that because it’s a woman expressing anger, and that is still a taboo? When a man expresses anger, he is seeking to change the world. When a woman expresses anger, it’s hysteria. Of course, in Nora’s case, she is unmarried, and her parents are only vaguely unsupportive (or simply vague). So perhaps she really only has her own fears and lack of ambition to blame for her failure to have ‘Great Artist’ written on her tombstone. 

Yet there is something there that I can relate to, however unlikable some readers have found the main character. It is so difficult to believe in your own talent, to allow yourself wings and the daily practice to make them become more than cumbersome appendages. The minute you venture beyond your enclosure, rejections come thick and fast. Words and muses refuse to visit. Gnawing doubts set in. How much easier to go back in the box, to think small, to believe the incessant and insistent whisper of your dear family… I so wish I could be satisfied with a job, with making money, with a decent place to live and a ‘normal’ family life.

‘Keep fighting!’ Michèle told me as we parted. Thank you, Michèle, I will, because a life without writing is too unbearable, meaningless.

Pierre Lemaitre: Au revoir là-haut

AurevoirFrance’s most prestigious literary prize is the Prix Goncourt. It’s awarded each year in November, and (like the Booker in the UK and the Pulitzer in the US) there is much suspense beforehand… and much dismay and controversy afterwards. 2013 saw the win of Pierre Lemaitre’s World War One epic. I had previously read (and enjoyed) Lemaitre’s crime fiction and it seems to me that much of the consternation about his win has to do with genre snobbery. This book is just too readable, too much of a page-turner to be a novel of real literary merit… it’s just not ‘difficult’ enough.

And that is exactly why I loved it. It makes sense of a difficult subject like the end of the First World War, with its inglorious aftermath of black marketeering, petty cons, appalling treatment of war veterans, rising materialism and cynicism. The first sentence immediately sets the scene:

Ceux qui pensaient que cette guere finirait bientôt étaient tous morts depuis longtemps. De la guerre, justement.

Those who thought the war would soon be over had all died long ago. In the war, of course. (my transl.)

But it also shows just how difficult this book will be to translate. The short ‘de la guerre’ could mean ‘because of’ the war, ‘from’ the war or ‘in’ the war. The title of the book itself is taken from the farewell letter written by a young soldier Jean Blanchard, who was unjustly executed for treason in 1914: ‘Till we meet again (up there), my dear wife…’. I will be very curious to see what catchy but faithful title the publisher will be able to come up with.

In the very last days of the war, the egotistic Lieutenant d’Aulnay-Pradelle (that double-barrel name is very important to him and says it all about this unpleasant character) orders a pointless patrol and attack which nearly kills two soldiers, the artistic Edouard and the practical Albert. Edouard saves Albert’s life and, in turn, Albert tends to Edouard in hospital. The latter is so badly injured that he can no longer talk and becomes hooked on morphine. He wants to disappear, to take on another identity, even if that causes distress to his family, and Albert helps him with that. This odd couple then try to survive in a post-war world which is all rhetoric of gratitude towards the ‘poilus’ (the soldiers of WW1), but in practice has little kindness or compensation for them, and makes no effort to help them to reintegrate into society. So they embark upon a rather desperate con trick to make money, but they turn out to be nothing like as ruthless as their nemesis Pradelle proves to be with the war graves.

pierrelemaitreMuch of this story is true, but the author brings forth his meticulous research with a light touch. The characters and the situations flow with the ease, satire and excitement of a soap opera. But a soap opera that is more reminiscent of Balzac and Zola, with macabre moments, very dark humour and real cruelty, as well as rather beautifully written passages. A book which reminds us that wars can turn any of us into monsters, and that is consequences are prolonged and unsavoury. It’s a long book, but it just swept me along, made me growl and laugh (bitterly) and cry. Lemaitre really is a master storyteller.

MacLehose Press has already published two of Lemaitre’s crime novels (see my reviews here and here) and hopes to bring out a translation of this book too soon. I also had the pleasure of interviewing the author and was entranced with his answers.

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