In a normal year about a quarter of my reading is in French but due to the toxic combination of Covid and Brexit, I didn’t read a single French novel in 2020 and really missed it, along with everything else I love about France. That changed when I read All Men Want to Know by Nina Bouraoui (tr. Aneesa Abbas Higgins) in the spring, and the joy of finally being able to walk into a bookshop on my recent trip set me off on an intense reading frenzy, devouring one French book after another. Today’s post brings you the most interesting and enjoyable which are available in English.
These five authors are all big names in France – three have won the Prix Goncourt, no less – which of course means their writing is much more likely to come out in English. Although I read the original versions, I regularly read other languages in translation and would to remind everyone how important it is to recognise and credit the literary translators who unlock amazing works we wouldn’t otherwise be able to access. (Without the English versions in front of me, I had to dig around to identify two of the translators featured here when they should appear on the cover!) As a linguist who is not a translator, I am in awe of the knowledge, skill and creativity this job requires – Sofa guest Alison Layland wrote a great post about it a few years ago.
Below you’ll find the blurbs plus my thoughts in brief. This list contains several of the best books I’ve read this year and I hope there’s something that appeals to you too. Bonne lecture!
Text adapted from publicity materials
1 THE COUNTRY OF OTHERS (LE PAYS DES AUTRES) by Leïla Slimani, translated by Sam Taylor (Faber)
1944: After the Liberation, Mathilde leaves France to join her husband in Morocco. But life here is unrecognisable to this brave and passionate young woman. Her life is now that of a farmer’s wife – with all the sacrifices and vexations that brings. Suffocated by the heat, by her loneliness on the farm and by the mistrust she inspires as a foreigner, Mathilde grows increasingly restless. As Morocco’s struggle for independence intensifies, Mathilde and her husband find themselves caught in the crossfire.
Why I chose it: I was immediately drawn into this novel, the first in a trilogy based on the author’s family history and found it compelling and moving on both an intimate and historical level. The characters and relationships are complex, the portrait of colonial era Morocco vivid and fascinating. Slimani’s penchant for dark subjects is still much in evidence but for me it is with this novel that her talent takes flight, with a more classic literary style and ambitious scope. It’s left me impatient for the next instalments and reminded me in many ways of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein.
2 AND THEIR CHILDREN AFTER THEM (ET LEURS ENFANTS APRES EUX) by Nicolas Mathieu, translated by William Rodarmor (Sceptre)
August 1992. Fourteen-year-old Anthony and his cousin decide to steal a canoe to fight their all-consuming boredom on a lazy summer afternoon. Their simple act of defiance will lead to Anthony’s first love and his first real summer – that one summer that comes to define everything that follows. Over four sultry summers in the 1990s, Anthony and his friends grow up in a France trapped between nostalgia and decline, decency and rage, desperate to escape their small town, the scarred countryside and grey council estates, in search of a more hopeful future.
Why I chose it: I’d been keen to read this novel since it won the Prix Goncourt in 2018 and during the long wait to get my hands on the (much cheaper) second edition, I somehow missed that it had come out in English last year. This is a long book in both wordcount and timespan, and a structural and psychological triumph. Mathieu juggles multiple viewpoints over a period of years, lending an extra dimension to the concept of character development; you may not care for some of these people at the outset but you will come to know and understand them intimately. Cynical, funny and bluntly sexy, it is one of the best novels of adolescence, masculinity and social realism I’ve come across – I didn’t want it to end. Having spent a year living adjacent to this area of NE France in a place with similar issues not long before the book opens, I thought it captured the impact and atmosphere of post-industrial decline in a very poignant and recognisable way.
3 PAINTING TIME (UN MONDE A PORTEE DE MAIN) by Maylis de Kerangal, translated by Jessica Moore (MacLehose Press)
Behind the ornate doors of 30, rue du Métal in Brussels, twenty students begin their apprenticeship in the art of decorative painting. During a relentless year of study, Paula, Kate and Jonas will learn the techniques of reproducing materials in paint, and the intensity of their experience – the long hours in the studio, the late nights, the conversations, arguments, parties, romances – will cement a friendship that lasts long after their formal studies end. Paula’s initiation into the art of trompe l’œil will take her back to her own childhood memories and to the ancient formations of the materials whose depiction she strives to master. And from the institute in Brussels to her work on the film sets of Cinecittà, and finally the prehistoric caves of Lascaux, her experiences will transcend art, gradually revealing something of her own inner world, and the secret desires of her heart.
Why I chose it: Maylis de Kerangal is known for complex research: on bridge-building, heart transplantation – Mend the Living is one of the most moving novels I’ve ever read – and in this case, decorative painting. I was drawn to this novel by my love of stories with an art theme and because I’ve also written about a (different) triangular relationship between people in their twenties. While the writing was sumptuous, for me the sheer density of detail and description proved an barrier to emotional investment in the characters, who had great potential but remained at arm’s length: I just didn’t see enough of them. I’m including it because I found the final section set in Lascaux fascinating, and because it appears that a significant proportion of English-speaking readers admire the novel without sharing my reservations.
4 THE ANOMALY (L’ANOMALIE) by Hervé Le Tellier, translated by Adriana Hunter (Michael Joseph) UK RELEASE 20 January 2022
Everyone on the flight that day had been leading a double life. Blake: a family man/an assassin for hire. Joanna: a formidable lawyer/an insecure woman. Slimboy: a promiscuous, straight rapper/a closeted gay man. When their flight from Paris to New York encountered a terrifying, unexpected bout of turbulence, they all feared for those lives. So upon landing safely, they are happy to put the flight behind them, and continue as normal.
The events that follow, however, are anything but normal. For not one plane emerged from the storm – but two. Everyone on the flight that day thought they had been leading a double life. They were wrong – until now. And as they prepare to meet their doubles, they must ask themselves:
Can you ever truly be yourself, if there are two of you?
Why I chose it: Although this novel isn’t out in the UK until January 2022, it’s not too soon to put it on your radar. I can’t recall describing any book as a work of genius but it feels apt for the 2020 Goncourt winner. A crazily inventive blend of high-concept and thriller (neither of which are my usual thing) with a very French intellectual and philosophical side, this is in a different league to other novels I’ve read which lean in a similar direction. It’s clever, funny, gripping and thought-provoking (prepare to wonder what you’re doing with the life you have and what the other one might look like…) Weeks later, I still can’t fathom how Le Tellier pulled it off, though it probably helped to be one of France’s most prolific and acclaimed authors. Fasten your seatbelts, English speaking world – this book will bend your mind.
5 MEN DON’T CRY (UN HOMME, ÇA NE PLEURE PAS) by Faïza Guène, translated by Sarah Ardizzone (Cassava Republic)
I already featured this recent translation from a small indie publisher in my Summer Reads Extras but there’s no doubt that it belongs in this special edition. Years after her precocious talent emerged, Faïza Guène continues to deliver an inimitable take on the complexities of French society and la condition humaine. Click here to go to the original post.
Next week is the 10th anniversary of the Literary Sofa and I hope you’ll come back to help me celebrate. There will be a post about my experience of running the blog, one on my 10 favourite books of the last decade with competition and in early October, a Book Pitch Spotlight for unagented writers. Details of how to enter here – judging by the pitches already received, I’ve let myself in for a difficult task!