Top New Books in French
In David Diop's violent and searingly anti-war novel Frère D'âme (2018), the Senegalese infantryman Alfa, fighting for France during World War I, is haunted by the death of his closest comrade and, maddened by grief and guilt, he proceeds to cut off one hand of each German soldier he kills, frightening his fellow soldiers through his obsessive revenge. In the novel's rewarding and lyrical second half, Alfa turns to recollecting his childhood in a small African village: a contrast pointing up the senseless butchery of war. Winner of the International Booker Prize (2021) for the English translation At Night All Blood is Black.
L'enfant céleste(2020), the debut novel from Maud Simonnot, provides an utter escape from the hectic, post-industrialized world. The protagonist Mary and her dreamy, sensitive young son Célian travel to a legendary island in the Baltic Sea after suffering emotional wounds. There, they explore the island's timeless forests and shores and are enfolded within a wild yet hospitable world that progressively heals them. Written in a delicate, lyrical and sensuous tenor, this novel returns us to the beauty of nature and the cosmos in a context of unconditional maternal love.
Le bal des folles by Victoria Mas (2019) combines historical fiction with gothic and thriller genres in its evocation of the 19th-century Hôpital Salpêtrière in Paris, where women viewed as insane, hysterical, debauched or otherwise unconventional were confined and subjected to study. We follow the lives of Eugenie, whose gift for communing with the dead has resulted in her being committed to the asylum; Geneviève, a devoted nurse; Thérèse, a prostitute; and Louise, abused by her uncle. This novel offers a dramatic period tableau of the treatment of women who were either unable or refused to obey the strict social codes of late nineteenth-century France.
Djaïli Amadou Amal's novel Les impatientes(2020), provides a chilling account of female victimization by traditions for which the only advice is the "tears of patience." Two sisters are married off against their wills at age seventeen, and we hear their stories as well as the perspective of the other wife of one of the men. Each recounts the experience of enforced marriage, polygamy and conjugal violence, as well as jealousy and mistrust within family circles. The novel is inspired by Amal's own experiences, which ultimately led her to found the organization "Femmes du Sahel" to educate women of the Sahel region and combat violence against them.
A trip to Auschwitz is the focus of Yasmina Reza's novel Serge(2021). With both parents now dead, three middle-aged Jewish siblings of Hungarian descent, Serge, Jean and Anne ("Nana"), decide to visit the historic site to re-connect with their ancestral past. This place of unspeakable horror - now treated by tourists as a "selfie" destination - brings out bittersweet familial tensions and conflicts, often recounted with biting humor, yet leavened by the implicit love and memories that bind the siblings in spite of themselves.
--- Margot Gray