Monday, April 14, 2014

En finir avec Eddy Belleguelle - Edouard Louis (2014)

I have to admit that I don't read French novels very often anymore. Living in Flanders and being a native English speaker means new French novels aren't really on my radar, even though our public library, in addition to having an excellent collection of English novels, also has a good collection of French novels.

Recently, however, the weekly literary supplement in our newspaper had a full spread about Edouard Louis, the 22-year-old author of the bestselling French novel "En finir avec Eddy Belleguelle".  I read the article, intrigued about how Louis wrote the novel to come to terms with his harsh childhood, and when we were in France last week, I happened to see the book and bought it, and ended up reading it over the course of a couple of days, because it was impossible to put down.

This autobiographical novel tells the story of Eddy, a young boy growing up in a small village in the north of France in the late 1990's and early 2000's.  He is the middle of five children in a poor family; his father is a factory worker who ends up on disability and his mother an in-home aide to the elderly.  The major problem for Eddy is that for as long as he can remember, he has had feminine characteristics - he describes his voice as impossibly high, his arms as flapping entities, all barely under his control when he speaks.  And from the very beginning of the book, we are witness to the brutal bullying he is put through at school, at home, in the village, for being different from the norm.  Eddy's childhood is a hell, and not only because of the bullying.

Eddy's family experiences difficulties ranging from alcoholism, unemployment, poverty, abuse, violence, even an unhealthy housing situation.  It was hard to read his descriptions of the moldy, damp, cold home his family lived in, in addition to all the rest of the misery he describes.  He had no safe place to go.

The book is fueled by the author's need to shake off the ghosts of the past, and as the title says, to finish or be done with Eddy Belleguelle, his childhood persona, to escape the victim he was as a child, and to a certain degree, take revenge on those who wronged him.  The portraits he paints of his parents, grandmother, brothers and sisters, cousins, and other people are chilling in their dark verity; all the violence done to Eddy is laid out as if in a court of justice, fact after horrifying fact, quote after ugly quote.

The author alternates his clear, almost dispassionate first-person narrative with verbatim quotes of family, enemies and friends peppered strongly with the local dialect.  If it weren't for some of the most shocking abuse scenes, I think this book would be an excellent text for an advance high school French class - it is so well and clearly written that a non-native reader can find her way around the modernisms and slang quite easily.  In addition, the themes of poverty, discrimination, and bullying would lend themselves well to classroom discussions.  But as an individual reader, what stays with me most after finishing the book is a feeling of intense sadness that a child had to go through such a difficult time.  Thankfully for Louis (who apparently changed his last name after leaving home) it seems he was able to somehow turn life into art and move on to a better place.  It will certainly be interesting to see if he continues with his career as a novelist.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Homework by Margo Livesey (1990)

Another volume I randomly picked up at the library and continuing my London theme, I guess.  Although the bulk of this novel takes place in Edinburgh, a good part of the beginning of the novel is in London.

The story is a first-person account by Celia, a textbook editor, of her love life and two major romances, as well as a bit about her career, but the cornerstone of the story is her difficult relationship with the 10-year-old daughter of her second, much more serious boyfriend, Stephen.  Celia meets Stephen after she moves to Edinburgh for a new job after having a disastrously one-sided relationship with a very selfish man in London.

She soon discovers that Jenny, Stephen's daughter, is not the lovely little girl that her father makes her out to be; Jenny is not pleased about the new situation and proves to be very devious about showing her displeasure to Celia.  A lot of tension builds up between Jenny and Celia and this puts pressure on her relationship with Stephen.

I enjoyed this novel, for several reasons.  First of all, the peculiarly quaint, almost old-fashioned feel to it - reading it 25 years after publication, you really feel that you are going back to an older, more simpler time, most evident in the descriptions of daily life - for example where Celia has to pull over to a public telephone to reach Stephen (no cell phones!) - and in Celia's office - an assistant who has to type up manuscripts for her!

I also enjoyed the author's detailed description of London and Edinburgh, as well as the various side characters in the novel, who all rang true as regular people.

Finally, the tension between Celia and Jenny, and wondering what mean prank the little girl was going to spring on her new stepmother next created a feeling of suspense in the novel which made it very difficult to put down.  The only thing I found a bit disappointing was the ending - no twist and no decisive action from Celia.  But perhaps this is more in keeping with the novel's quaint realism.  Other than that, it was an engaging read.