Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

The People in the Photo – Hélène Gestern

Contemporary Fiction 4*s
Contemporary Fiction
4*s

I do love books that use the epistolary form to tell a story which is all about pictures from the past. Hélène Hivert is an archivist, as a girl she was bought up by her father and her step-mother, her own having died when she was a young girl. On her father’s death she comes across a photo of Nathalie, her mother, a woman who was rarely mentioned given that any of the young Hélène’s questions were met with silence and stormy reactions. The photo shows her mother in Interlaken in 1971 at a tennis match and stood between two unknown men. Wanting to know more she places an advert in the paper and receives a response from Stéphane who recognises both men, one of whom is his father, Pierre.

From here on the pair compare childhoods and their relationships with their parents and discover parallels but what they want to know is how their respective parents came to be in Interlaken. With the aid of photos, diaries and other documents this is a tale of how they learnt more and what the story behind the photo was. But, this isn’t  a plot driven novel, it is one about less than perfect relationships of all different kinds. It is a story of choices and consequences and living with the results.

If you wondered whether this is based on a true story, it wasn’t, despite the protagonist sharing the first name as the author. If there was any doubt, the correspondence between Hélène and Stéphane describes their journey which it could be said is fairly straightforward with discoveries made with relative ease and the pieces of their personal puzzle slotting together in a way that felt a little too smooth to be realistic. The author tries to maintain the tension with delaying tactics that became a little repetitive; it goes without saying that anyone who knew their parents are incapacitated in a variety of ways that stops them revealing what they know. Fair enough the story is set more than forty years ago, but to then add too many instances where the owner of a pertinent piece of information writes to the other to say they can’t read it yet, it’s too emotional, or that they left it behind when making a trip simply didn’t ring true. Those small criticisms don’t detract from what is overall a well-plotted, touching and moving story.

Those of you like me who have far too many books on their shelves may be swayed by the fact that this is a shortish book coming in at only 270 pages which makes it an ideal story to fit into a busy reading schedule,. Its relatively brevity doesn’t short-change the reader, in fact its impact is far greater than some books twice this length with its deceptively light touch examining relationships and giving the reader a cast of characters that won’t easily be forgotten.

I can’t leave this review without praising the work of the two translators; Emily Boyce and Ros Schwartz who were so good that I completely forgot that this book was originally written in French, where incidentally this debut novel won a slew of prizes.

I’d like to say a big thank you to Gallic books for giving me a copy of The People in the Photo, this review is my thank you to them.

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

Moon in a Dead Eye – Pascal Garnier

Contemporary Fiction 5*s
Contemporary Fiction
5*s

If you like your humour dark and fuelled by a savage turn of phrase, this short book will most likely suit your needs perfectly.

In this short novel Pascal Garnier turns his attentions to the elderly and those who are acquainted with his style realise that nothing good can come of Martial and Odette Sudre move to a gated retirement village.
Odette is keen on the idea of living a life-like being on holiday each day of the year whereas Martial is a little more circumspect

All those years spent doggedly accumulating a thousand little habits from which to spin a cosy cocoon of existence on first-name terms with the newsagent, butcher and baker, going to the market on Saturday morning and taking the Sunday stroll up to Mont Valerien… Then one by one, their neighbours had retired to the Loire valley, Brittany, Cannnes… or the cemetery.

But as Odette becomes seduced by talk of a clubhouse and a pool the pair move in. The pair were the first of the residents to move into the village and the winter months was a bit of a lonely one as well as a time to acclimatise.

For the moment, it was closed, and they had not yet met nor even caught sight of the social secretary. Not that Martial was overly concerned. In fact, he was somewhat dreading the opening of the clubhouse. He had no desire to take part in pancake-tossing competitions with people he did not know.

I liked Martial!

After a long winter with Odette buying items for the new house and cooking culinary surprises they are keen to form a welcoming committee when a new couple move in; Maxime and Marlene Node, finally instead of imagining the new neighbours they could meet them for real! Perhaps mindful of the dreary winter they soon share food, drink and outings together. And then a new single woman is rumoured to be moving into the complex and Maxime for one is keen to impress.

Maxime was striking toreador poses. Chest puffed out, belly sucked in, fists clenched beside his hips, he held his breath for long enough to tell himself he still looked pretty good for a man his age. As his muscles relaxed, the skin sagged on his hunched skeleton like an oversized garment. He shrugged his shoulders and began to shave.

Léa moves in, and her new inquisitive neighbours show up on her doorstep as soon as the removal men left keen to see how their new neighbour would fit into the community. With savage humour Garnier exposes each of the characters for the shallow beings they are, have always been, the difference being, in real life there are distractions from yourself, in a gated community with a scarcity of people, the owners of these shallow characteristics become more aware of them, as well as being irritated by those of others.

A thoroughly enjoyable look at snobbery and aging while you can’t fail to miss the underlying suspense, the feeling that something awful is about to befall these poor misguided folk. To find out what that is, you’ll have to read the book for yourself!

I am very grateful to the publishers Gallic Books who gave me a copy of this book which I exchange for this, my honest opinion and have to praise the skill of the translator,  Emily Boyce, who made me forget that it wasn’t originally written in English.

Other Books I’ve Read by Pascal Garnier

Boxes
The A26

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

Boxes – Pascal Garnier

Contemporary Fiction 4*s
Contemporary Fiction
4*s

I chose this book principally because this author came to my attention through Guy Savage’s fascinating blog where he has reviewed a number of this author’s books. As they sounded dark and different I was delighted when Boxes appeared on NetGalley.

From what I’ve gathered Pascal Garnier’s book Boxes was published posthumously following his death in 2010, also little birds have indicated that this probably isn’t the best example of his work, but I found plenty to enjoy, if enjoy is indeed the right word for such a grim and gloomy book.

Brice is moving to the country from the apartment he shared with his wife Emma in Lyon to the countryside, hence the title, all their lives are packed into labelled boxes ready for the removal men to arrive:

Perhaps it was an occupational hazard, but they were all reminiscent of a piece of furniture: the one called Jean-Jean, a Louis-Phillippe chest of drawers; Ludo, a Normandy wardrobe; and the tall, shifty looking one affectionately known as The Eel, a grandfather clock. This outfit of rascals with bulging muscles and smiles baring wolf-like teeth made short work of surveying the flat.

But despite the efficient way his life is hauled from Lyon to a small village there is something missing, Emma. At first Brice makes a stab at unpacking his boxes but not for long, he wants it to be right for Emma, his younger wife, a woman he isn’t entirely sure he deserves.

But women’s hearts are unfathomable and full of oddities as the bottom of their handbags.

And then we learn that she isn’t just away, she’s missing presumed dead in a terrorist attack in Egypt, while working as a journalist. Brice knows no-one in the small village although he gets adopted by a cat but his isolation from other humans aids his descent into depression, and worse, as he fails to accept the loss of his wife or to carry on with his illustration work for a children’s book. Illustrating Mabel Hirsch’s books about Sabine had been his bread and butter but Brice dislikes Mabel, Sabine and children.

The little brat, whose face he riddled with freckles for sport, was seriously taking over his life. As for her creator, he must have killed her at least a hundred times in the course of troubled dreams. He would throttle her until her big frogspawn eyes burst out of their sockets and then tear off all her jewellery. She could no longer move her poor arthritic fingers, they were so weighed down with gold and diamonds. Strings of pearls disappeared into the soft fleshy folds of her double chin. Old, ugly and nasty with it! Al that emerged from her scar of a mouth, slathered in bloodred honey, were barbed compliments which would themselves around your neck, the better to jab you in the back.

With Emma’s parents concern is spurned and it looks like Brice’s life can’t get any worse he meets Blanche, who is at best a little eccentric and constantly impresses on Brice how much he looks like her father who was also an artists. Let’s just say the story becomes even more weird!

This is a short book, easily read with wonderful language, especially considering that it is a work of translation which evokes many feelings, most of which are, admittedly at the grimmer end of the scale. I am absolutely sure I will be seeking out more of Pascal Garnier’s books as this evoked memories of the dark short stories written by the late Roald Dahl, that I loved in my teens.

I’d like to thank the publishers Gallic Books for my copy of this book in return for this honest review. Boxes was published in English in May 2015.