Loyalties by Delphine de Vigan translated by George Miller
Today I know something that other people don’t. And I mustn’t close my eyes.
Sometimes I tell myself that that’s the only point of becoming an adult: to repair what was lost and damaged at the start. And to keep the promises of the child we once were.
Hélène is worried about Théo, one of her pupils. Even by the standards of preteen boys, he’s withdrawn, but her colleagues don’t seem concerned. Hélène is primed to notice such things, however, having been abused herself as a child.
Cécile, the mother of the boy’s best friend, Mathis, is also worried about Théo, but mostly because she feels he’s a bad influence on her son. She’s also worried about her marriage, having striven to meet her husband’s middle-class standards, she’s discovered he has a disturbing alter ego online.
Mathis is also worried about Théo, or about their friendship that’s in decline. Théo used to be fun, but now all he wants to do is drink in their hideaway at school. And it’s the hard stuff: spirits they buy, with money Mathis steals from his mother’s purse, from a shopkeeper who doesn’t seem to mind they’re only twelve years old.
Théo is so worried he can’t sleep. But like his teacher, Hélène, he wouldn’t know how to put those worries into words. But even if he could, who could he tell? His mother’s made it clear she doesn’t want to know about the weeks he spends with his father on the other side of Paris, and his father’s far too vulnerable to hear his complaints.
I was keen to read this author’s fifth novel, having missed out on Based on a True Story which was highly praised last year. I loved the voice, with admirable descriptive phrases, and was interested in the characters, but had reservations about the plot. Mostly, I wanted to ask the teacher why now? Hélène is an experienced teacher, and must have taught students who have triggered her own childhood memories before now. Some of her behaviour seems extreme, and some unlikely, given professional safety standards, at least in the UK.
Although she has a confidant, it’s Cécile who sees a therapist, who probes her motivations and reactions to her husband’s shocking secret life. Interesting as this was, I thought it peripheral to the plot.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed my evening spent in the company of Delphine de Vigan’s characters, courtesy of Bloomsbury publishing, and loved the passage (p141) I’ve quoted above. It’s sheer coincidence that my third read of the year is a third translation from the French.
The Death of Murat Idrissi by Tommy Wieringa translated by Sam Garrett
Born in the Netherlands to Moroccan immigrants, friends Thouraya and Ilham are determined to claim the freedoms taken for granted by their peers. So, despite being short of money, and having to borrow her sister’s passport, Ilham hardly hesitates when Thouraya suggests hiring a car and travelling to their parents’ homeland for a couple of weeks in the sun. But things don’t go as smoothly as they’d hoped.
When they prang another car they’re forced to part with most of their money but, even without that misfortune, it’s not so easy for two young women to get around without a man. So when they bump into Saleh, whom Ilham first met at a wedding party back home, it’s a relief to shelter under his wing. Even if he does have a bad reputation, and it means an unauthorised extension of their stay.
But Saleh expects more than their friendship. What he proposes is both illegal and dangerous, yet the friends feel they have little choice. Besides, if he’s so laid back about the arrangement, why should they worry, as long as it gets them home? Of course, the plan goes wrong, and disastrously so, leaving Thouraya and Ilham to face the consequences on their own.
After a poetic prologue on the history of the Strait of Gibraltar, Tommy Wieringa doesn’t waste a single word. The prose is tight, the story packed into 100 pages, stripped of superfluous detail as a short story might be. Like one of his previous novels, These Are the Names, the theme is migration and inequalities, as well as the multiple meanings of a tight space. Engaging and thought-provoking, I’d nevertheless have welcomed just a little more. Thanks to Scribe publications for my review copy.