Women in Translation Month: Poverty in France

WITMonth15Bibliobio is organising another Women in Translation Month this year, a challenge with very few prescriptions other than to read as many women authors as possible. I’m reading plenty and I hope to review a good few.



Virginie Despentes: Apocalypse Bébé

[I read this in French, but it has been translated into English by Sian Reynolds and published by Serpent’s Tail].

Valentine, the troubled teenage daughter from a well-off Parisian family, has disappeared. The private detective her family had hired to follow her, Lucie, is out of her depth, so she partners with a creature known to everyone only as The Hyena, a secret agent with a mad gleam in her eyes, notorious for her penchant for good-looking women and her ability to make the bad boys of this world quake in their shoes. Valentine must also be the only teenager in France who doesn’t use her mobile or Facebook or any other internet platform – how to trace her?

As this strange, squabbling duo search for the girl first in Paris and then in Barcelona, they come across all walks of life. This is where the satire comes in, and Despentes spares no one. She has a ruthless eye for revealing details and a sharp tongue. She mocks and yet at the same time serves some uncomfortable home truths about the publishing world (Valentine’s Dad is an author), blended families, hustling to escape poverty, nouveau riche aspirations, the angry young people of the banlieue, the lesbian milieu, even the building boom and snobbery of Barcelona.

This book just whacks you on the head and takes you for one hell of a ride, with a blend of fierce humour, very individual voices and genuine revolt and sadness. It is to my mind a very realistic fresco of contemporary French society, with no particularly likeable characters, but certainly characters that you can understand and pity. My heart went out to the poor stepmother, Claire, who has played by the rules all of her life, lived according to other people’s expectations, and yet has encountered nothing but disappointments.

Even though I usually prefer my prose to be less direct and more measured or minimalistic, this was quite an exhilarating experience, a shock to the system.

QuinnAlice Quinn: Queen of the Trailer Park (transl. Alexandra Maldwynn-Davis)

I came across this book on Netgalley: despite the name of the author and the rather American-sounding main protagonist, it is translated from French. Under the original title Un palace en enfer it became a self-publishing phenomenon, reaching No. 1 on the Kindle bestseller list in France in 2013. Then again, France has a much lower rate of e-book penetration, so perhaps the people reading it were on the younger side. The plot is unrealistic to say the least, but it’s a bit of escapist fun.

One might call this ‘Despentes lite’: it too portrays life on the margins of society, of people whom many might call ‘losers’, but it is a book with a much more optimistic message. Fairy tales can happen. Single mothers on benefits with little education can make it good, trick the Mafia, battle corrupt officials and still bathe four children and put them to bed. The ‘trailer park’ is actually a single caravan parked outside the former railway station in a town in Southern France and sounds quite idyllic, but the language and attitude is defiantly that of what the Americans would call ‘white trailer trash’. I did like the quote: ‘People always say money isn’t everything… Don’t believe a word of it. It’s not as simple as all that. It might not buy you love, but it lifts your spirits…’

For a more thoughtful (yet just as funny) depiction of life in poverty in France, I would recommend Jeanne Desaubry: Poubelle’s Girls. Or just read the original: Despentes herself.

15 thoughts on “Women in Translation Month: Poverty in France”

  1. For a complete change of genre -and promised humour- I like the look of both of these… the characterisation sounds fab. More great reviews of totally new to me books Marina and ultimately more for the wishlist 🙂

  2. These sound like really compelling stories, each in a different way. For one, it’s the pace, the tension, and the thriller feel. For the other, it’s that intense look at life on the other side of the proverbial tracks. Both look really interesting, Marina Sofia. Thanks!

    1. The Despentes one especially also raises many questions about the relationship between parents and children, about racism and materialism, youth unemployment and extremism. I think it’s a provocative look at today’s society.

  3. I was just about to say that Apocalypse Bébé sounds as though it would make a great film when I noticed the reference to Baise-Moi on the cover image. I haven’t seen it, but that’s been turned into a movie (as far as I can recall).

    It’s interesting to see such a diverse range of reviews for this year’s WIT month as we all seem to be reading different things.

    1. I do feel a bit guilty that I am sticking to tried and tested, i.e. European, authors. Luiselli is my only writer from further afield. I just wanted to read from my current shelf, not have to acquire anything new, so that’s how it turned out.

      1. That’s okay, especially as many of these writers will be new to readers of your blog. I’ve been doing the same thing, choosing books from my shelves to fit with WIT Month and Spanish Lit Month. It all helps with the TBR. 🙂

  4. Apocalypse Bébé punches you in the guts, doesn’t it? I loved it; I was SO happy to read about the real French society and not the angst of the French forty-year-old white man. How refreshing.

    For the second one, if the writer’s name is a pen-name, I might know where it comes from. Nancy Drew is known in French as “Alice” and since the write on the books covers is “Caroline Quine”…

    e-book penetration in France isn’t going to improve with the latest EU stunt on VAT. 7% for paper books, 20% for ebooks when the French government had decided for 7% for both types of books…

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