Published by Gallic Books 1 September, 2012
262pp, paperback, £7.99
Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside
Hélène Grémillon’s debut novel has been translated into more than 20 languages and it is easy to see why. Her tale of love and revenge may be set in France during the Second World War and in mid-1970s Paris but its theme of the corrosive nature of family secrets has a universal appeal.
Paris, 1975, and Camille is going through condolence cards and letters regarding her recently deceased mother. One envelope looks different from the others and she opens it to find an anonymous letter relating the story of Louis and Annie, two teenagers living in a small French village just before the Second World War. At first Camille dismisses the letter as a mistake but when more arrive she is soon absorbed in their lives.
Annie, a keen artist, is taken under the wing of Madame M., who lives in the big house in the centre of the village. Annie and Madame M. become close, so close that Annie offers to carry a child for her infertile friend. This generous and unselfish gesture unleashes a torrent of love, hate, and cruel revenge. The planned clinical coupling between Annie and Monsieur M. turns into a passionate love affair that yields a daughter. However Madame M. has been spying on her husband and protégée and she is consumed by jealousy and anger. Shocked by their betrayal she vows to make them pay. And so begins the most gripping and emotional section of the book as two women vie for the love of a much-wanted child and the affections of her father.
Louis, Annie and finally Madame M. take turns in narrating the story and this serves to demonstrate the gulf between what is said and what is understood. They are unreliable narrators, too immersed in their own feelings to see the bigger picture, but Grémillon paints a complex and moving portrait of love and sacrifice. Camille, herself pregnant, struggles to understand why she has been chosen to receive these letters. Slowly, she pieces together the clues and the realization of her part in the story suddenly makes sense of her past.
Grémillon builds the tension with each letter, the story twisting and turning in unexpected ways. The writing is crisp and the characters are believable and well defined. As the tension reaches boiling point the final revelation is surprising but satisfying, bringing the story full circle. You would have to have a very hard heart indeed to read this fine novel without shedding at least one tear.