French in June and #20Books: Gael Faye and Lola Lafon

The reviews for these two books will be short, not because I didn’t enjoy the books, but because I have run out of time. The end of this month has been a particularly busy one for me. That is also the reason I am grouping them together, although the only similarity they have is that they both feature child narrators (at least partly) and are based on true stories, although they are both works of fiction.

Actually, now that I think about it, ‘enjoy’ is perhaps the wrong word to use about either of these two books, each dealing with such difficult themes. They were quite challenging to read, but I am glad I did. They both had very powerful, moving prose, although Lafon tries to be more clinical and detached.

Book 8/20: Gael Faye: Petit Pays (translated by Sarah Ardizzone as Small Country)

Gabriel is living in France as an adult, a country that is oddly familiar to him (with a French dad, and having gone to a French school all his life), but also one where he never feels he fully belongs (his mother is a Tutsi refugee from Rwanda, and he spent most of his childhood in Burundi). After a brief prologue – in which Gabriel’s father tries to explain the reasons for the civil war in Burundi and Rwanda, which the children interpret as ‘because the Hutus and the Tutsis don’t have the same type of nose’ – we see Gabriel living a very threadbare life in the Paris region but not entirely sure if he dares to return to his home country. The rest of the book describes this childhood in Burundi in 1992-94, and in particular life in his close, a relatively affluent area of Bujumbura, full of mixed-race marriages or diplomats.

One highlight is Gabriel’s eleventh birthday party, where everyone is invited, even people who are normally quite hostile to each other. Although a confrontation takes place there between two of the boys, and then there is a black-out, the party continues with live instruments and improvised music and dancing. It is the last moment of joy and insouciance for those present, for soon afterward the war erupts in Rwanda (with dire consequences for Gabriel’s relatives), and then the fragile new democracy in Burundi crumbles too. The friendship between the boys on the close unravels too.

The book is now widely taught in French schools, has become a modern classic, as well as winning the literary prize chosen by high-school students (and not just because the author is a popular rapper). It provides an eye-opening description of a certain time and place, and explains so well the reasons why people become refugees. There are some great scenes, often funny, but also moving, and there are some lyrical passages which are very well written, but there are also shocking scenes, which are not sugarcoated at all for a YA audience. Occasionally, the child’s voice slips and we are transported to the adult’s perception, but I didn’t find that annoying. The finale could be seen by some as too sentimental, but I think it struck just about the right note.

Book 9/20: Lola Lafon: Chavirer (translated by Hildegarde Serle as Reeling)

This was another hard-hitting book, quite difficult to read at times, although it was less graphic than Faye’s novel. Based on the author’s own experience of studying ballet, it is in essence the Ghislaine Maxwell/Jeffrey Epstein network transposed to a French setting. Girls as young as 13 are lured in by an elegant, well-educated and well-connected woman at the Galatea Foundation, with the promise of a scholarship that would enable them to pursue their dreams of becoming a dancer, an artist, an actress etc. Cleo is one of the girls who falls under the spell of the glamorous Cathy but soon finds herself trapped in a frightening situation that she barely understands. It gets even worse when she becomes complicit with the sinister operation, recruiting ‘promising’ girls. As Cleo grows up, and as the victims of this network start to speak out, she struggles with her own role in this pedophile ring, and that she never warned the girls of the dangers.

But it’s not just Cleo’s story. We see multiple points of view, including the discussion boards set up many years later by investigative journalists and documentary makers trying to find out what had been going on. The book shows just how difficult it is for #MeToo experiences to be taken seriously, especially in a country like France.

Those lunches, in the nineties, that brought together girls and powerful men? It was common knowledge. These are the words of the female producer of a radio show with whom Enid and Elvire are talking about their forthcoming documentary. Everyone knew about it. And if those lunches took place for so many years without anyone complaining about them, it’s proof that nothing that serious went on at them, she adds.

Although the scenes of abuse are not shown directly, and certainly not in detail, we are shown the effect it has on the girls, the temporary disassociation of body and mind that they have to enact in order to survive, but also the long-term trauma. By allowing a multiplicity of voices to be represented, Lafon makes us question ourselves and our hypocrisies, and makes us wonder to what extent we too have often been complicit in the exploitation of others.

… it’s not what we are forced to do that destroys us, but what we consent to do that chips away at us; those pricks of shame, from consenting every day to reinforce what we decry. I buy things knowing they’re made using slave labor, I go on vacation to a dictatorship with lovely sunny beaches. I got to the birthday party of a harasser who produces my films. We’re shot through with such shame, a whirlwind that, little by little, bores into us and hollows us out. Not having said anything. Or done anything. Having said yes because we didn’t know how to say no.

Incoming Books and Their Sources (5)

December was a month of book acquisition frenzy – as if I had to buy up everything before the shops closed for one or two days on Christmas Day. (Well, I knew no one was going to buy books for me as a present, and I was right!) I was planning to calm down in the New Year, but a couple of things have slipped through the net since. Plus all of you horrendously well-read bloggers tempt with various tidbits which are sometimes available at the local library… My book trolley is groaning under the weight. But the time has now come to put all of these new books in their rightful place on my shelves, so that they can patiently wait to be read.

The Turgenev Hangover

After reading my first novel by Turgenev as part of my Russians in the Snow, I wanted to explore more by this writer, so I got one of his earlier and one of his later books. Not necessarily the ones people recommended on Twitter, but the ones that sounded most appealing to me from the blurb (dangerous strategy, I know!).

The Brophy Bunch

A few days before Christmas, just as I started my holidays, Brigid Brophy’s daughter Kate Levey tweeted a little quiz about Brophy’s novels and life. My results were pretty woeful so I thought I should remedy that by reading two of her novels which come highly recommended: Jacqui liked both of them but it was her review of The King of a Rainy Country which made me choose that one, while Melissa was very pleasantly surprised by her first encounter with Brophy in Flesh.

My Hometown Buddies

As I was reading some German-language reviews of Marlen Haushofer, I came across the comment that she will always appeal to a niche audience, rather like Ilse Aichinger and Gerhard Fritsch, and will never have the acclaim (or controversy) of fellow Austrian writers Thomas Bernhard or Peter Handke or Elfriede Jelinek or Ingeborg Bachmann. I had read Aichinger before, but not much of Fritsch (who committed suicide at quite a young age). Plus, both of them are Viennese, so I consider them my ‘local’ people. As for Erich Kästner, he lived for a while in the city I hope to move to in the future, Berlin, but I came across his journal Notabene 45 about Germany during the dying days of WW2 and straight after in a review in the daily Viennese newsletter to which I subscribe – so again a connection to the city of my childhood.

Zoe approves of this book, clearly.

I was having a conversation with one of my colleagues at work, who is of Nigerian descent but has lived in a very white middle-class neighbourhood in London and gone to a grammer school in Kent. She recommended this book The Scramble for Africa to me, which she read to understand a bit more about her own background. I have always been fascinated by the way the great powers carved up a continent for its riches, not unlike Eastern Europe, I suppose, being at the mercy of constantly shifting borders and alliances.

Still in Africa

I attended a LRB session with the Nobel Prize winner Abdulrazak Gurnah being interviewed by Kamila Shamsie, after I very much enjoyed reading his novel Admiring Silence. So I was delighted to order a signed copy of his latest novel, After Lives, as well as finding a second-hand copy of his By the Sea.

The review copies, much loved by Zoe

Lola Lafon trained to be a dancer for quite a while, as well as spending a good portion of her childhood in Romania, so I have a bit of an affinity for her work. I am therefore really pleased that Europa Editions have sent me the ARC for her latest novel to be translated into English, Reeling (which does have a ballet theme). Meanwhile, Fum d’Estampa has a new book of short fiction out by Catalan author Bel Olid, while Canongate has a quirky Korean novel about a sixty-five year old female contract killer entitled The Old Woman with the Knife.

Vlogger’s Delight

The two books above (in this slightly shaky picture) winged their way towards me after hearing Liv Hooper, bookseller and one of my favourite bookish YouTubers, talk about them. Little Scratch is experimental fiction about an averag day in the life of an average woman, while The Least We Can Do is a manifesto about inclusivity and ethics, freedom of speech and moral discourse in the bookselling and publishing industry.

Rumer has it…

There was so much love for Rumer Godden from quite a range of bloggers in the past few years, especially HeavenAli, Harriet Devine and Fiction Fan, while Peter Leyland on Twitter said how much he had enjoyed listening to a radio adaptation of The Battle of Villa Fiorita, so I thought I’d expand my horizons beyond The Greengage Summer and The Black Narcissus. I’ve already read Villa Fiorita, which was good, but much sadder than I expected.

The American contingent

After the death of bell hooks, I just had to remind myself of her inspiring work, while various bloggers are to blame for the other temptations: Kaggsy was responsible for Gentleman Overboard, a neglected and strange little book; Guy Savage assured me I would love The Husbands; and I think I got Shelter after reading an interview with the author Jung Yun about her latest novel O Beautiful, which sounded less interesting to me.

The library books

I am now fully invested in the Brontë Sisters mystery series, so I got the latest (third one) from the library and am more than halfway through. For Your Own Good is our next Virtual Crime Book Club read, so I hope to finish it by the 31st of January, when we have our next meeting (I just picked it up today). As for The Appeal, yes, I admit, I succumbed to all the buzz about this and Janice Hallett’s even more recent one, The Twyford Code. It had better not be a disappointment, or I will blast all of my Twitterati!