Jean Teulé: The Poisoning Angel, transl. Melanie Florence, Gallic Books.
When I embarked upon this book, I had no idea that it was based on a real-life case of a serial poisoner in Bretagne in the 19th century. I gather this is this author’s special niche, he takes on true crime cases or real historical figures and speculates about the gaps in their lives or their psychology and motivation.
Hélène Jégado is a little girl in Bretagne, who grows up to become a servant and a cook, and seems to believe that she is either an avenging or a just angel, that she is death’s helper, according to a local myth, and is therefore divinely guided towards ending people’s lives. Whether the real Hélène Jégado believed this, we shall never know, although some of the statements from her trial have been preserved (and are quite puzzling).
I liked the references to the Breton superstitions and gossip, but was not quite sure what the presence of the Norman wig-makers added to the story (a complete invention by the author, obviously). They keep popping up in almost every location and having bizarre, supposedly comic accidents.
The repeated accounts of poisoning entire households (and people not realising for a long time that she, the cook, might be to blame) are sprinkled with a dose of humour and detachment, but overall the story just felt a little flat. Are we supposed to shake our heads at the ‘witch hunt’ or at village superstitions and illiteracy (Hélène cannot read)? Are we supposed to be moved by her ‘love story’, that she did develop feelings for one person in her life, although it didn’t stop her from poisoning him too? I am not quite sure how to feel about this one.
Florence Noiville: A Cage in Search of a Bird, transl. Teresa Lavender Fagan, Seagull Books.
This book is also about a delusion – this time not of acting as the angel of death, but an extreme obsession with another person. I had not heard of the De Clérambault syndrome before reading this book, but I had heard of cases of celebrity stalkers and the obsessions that they can form about ‘their’ celebrities. However, in this case it is not really a celebrity, merely a fairly niche TV journalist who meets an old schoolfriend, recommends her for a job at the TV station she works for and then begins to notice and fear the unhealthy fixation her old friend develops for her.
This is written almost like a personal memoir as the narrator, Laura, uncovers more and more about this syndrome and speaks to others who have fallen victim as the ‘object of affection’. Laura has the frightening insight that there is no cure for it, no way to diminish the ardour of the person suffering from this syndrome, that each of her reactions will be misinterpreted, and that it very often escalates into violence and destruction.
It was a quick, fascinating read, written in that quite matter-of-fact, unadorned modern French style (as Leila Slimani said at an event in London – everyone in France wants to write like Camus). I found the scenes where Laura is not taken seriously by her boyfriend particularly poignant. It also has a sense of escalating danger, quite sinister, and then… I hate to say that there is a ‘twist you won’t be expecting’, because to be honest, you are sort of expecting some kind of twist… But there is a twist, and it is quite a satisfying one.
I should say that these too were new-to-me authors and I was very happy to see that this time both of my translated #FrenchFebruary reads are from independent publishers. Gallic Books were those brave publishers to bring one of my favourite French writers, Pascal Garnier, into the English-speaking world, while Naveen Kishore’s Seagull Books, based in Kolkata, India, needs no further introduction. So I can join in with Kaggsy and Lizzy’s #ReadIndies initiative.