Chanson Douce- Leila Slimani

The English translation of this award-winning French novel was recently released and everyone has been going crazy for it, so I just had to give it a go. I had heard it described as the next Gone Girl and I loved that book, so my hopes were high. As a final year French student, and a true believer that translations never entirely do a book justice, I decided to read the original French (definitely not just a way of convincing myself that reading this counted as work).

 

The very first sentence of Chanson Douce, or Lullaby as it has been translated into English, is “Le bébé est mort.” (The baby is dead.) and if that isn’t enough to make you want to get to the end of this book, then I don’t know what would be. how has this baby died? Why? Who killed him? Why? So. Many. Questions. And the great thing about the novel is that we never really have all of them answered, yet we keep reading, hoping that we will be able to gather enough evidence to satisfy our curiosity. Keep reading I did, as I managed to devour all 227 pages in under 24 hours- and I have no regrets.

 

Slimani does a fantastic job at interchanging between perspectives, in the way that we are never quite sure who we should be identifying with. Yes, it is clear to see who is acting inappropriately, and who we should perhaps dislike in the very moment, but we are never quite sure if we should trust our own judgement. I was constantly questioning whether there was more to the characters than was being let on, and was using information to devise possible scenarios, but I kept finding that I was wrong and that what I had previously predicted, wasn’t necessarily the case. Even the characters you do feel sympathy for are flawed, which I think presents quite an interesting picture of humanity.

The author uses very easy to follow syntax and language for the post part, which definitely contributes to how easy the book is to read. There is plenty of punctuation, which adds to the drama, delaying the narrative and increasing the reader’s desperation to find out what is exactly going to happen.

I think her technique of beginning with the end is fantastic, as it immediately creates a feeling of investment, and I’m not sure the narrative would have had the same effect if the ending was not disclosed this early. On the subject of chronology, I also appreciated the appearance of flashbacks- some of which are obvious and have a clear purpose- some of which are not explicitly flashbacks until the narrative conclusion.

Chanson Douce definitely brings up some really interesting questions with regards to motherhood and parental guilt, which ( even though I am not a mother myself) I believe that many women could identify with: is hiring a nanny the right thing? Should I go back to work?

I really don’t want to give away too much because this narrative is based on mystery- but I don’t think I saw the explanation of the ending coming, and that is what is important. I love a book that keeps me on my toes. I cannot speak for the English translation, but if it conveys even half of the mystery of the French, I cannot recommend it enough.

Robert des noms propres- Amelie Nothomb

There is no denying that this short novel throws you right into the narrative from the very start. Any hope you might have for Lucette is quickly whipped away, with two deaths complete in under thirty pages.  However, this does not even necessarily tell the reader anything about the rest of the novel- except that it is going to be intense.

The title of the novel doesn’t give anything away, either, with no allusion to it until the very end. However, what the reader is made clear of is Plectrude’s importance. The reader is made to focus on every tiny detail about her, from her speech (from the moment she is learning), to her physical appearance (even when this is not in its best form) and it is these small details that allow us to understand more about the story- even when it might seem that very little has been offered to us in terms of narrative or character development. Focussing on these small details results in an ‘Oh, I see how this is making sense’ scenario towards the end of the novel.

It is interesting that Clémence’s husband plays such a quiet role in this novel. On the rare occasion that we hear his opinion, it is quickly undermined by his wife, highlighting the importance of women in this novel, and potentially foreboding Clémence’s fate-changing tendency that we later see. This is clever, considering that she appears to be so kind and accommodating elsewhere in the novel.

Nothing is more unexpected than the very end of the narrative. In fact, even just a few pages before the end the characters’ fate changes, which means the reader should never relax or be complacent in their predictions. It is the first time that Nothomb references herself as the narrator, which means the final event feels a little glued on, and does not seem to flow properly with the direction of the rest of the narrative. Having said that, it certainly adds to how shocking the event is.

In contrast with the intensity of the subject of Robert des noms propres, Nothomb’s writing style is very relaxed, and incredibly easy to read. She favours the matter-of-fact over convolution which, one might argue, contributes to the intensity of the subject in hand.

I would definitely recommend Robert des noms propresfor the very reason that it is sure to keep you on your toes. Even when you think you have predicted the outcome, you discover you are wrong, and it is this that keeps you turning the pages. This engaging yet unpredictable narrative, combined with the simple writing style makes this a quick, yet satisfying, read.

Oliver Twist- Charles Dickens

Now, we all know the story of Oliver Twist, so I cannot pretend that this week’s review will be anything ground-breaking. However, I must admit that this is the first time that I have actually sat down to read the Dickens novel. I am unsure (and a little embarrassed) how, as a literature student (aged 21), and Dickens lover, I have managed to overlook this novel until now. Better late than never, I suppose…

Oliver Twist is classic Dickens- hearty and thorough writing, that absolutely brings the characters to life. He does this through both explicit character description, and allowing each character to display their own personality through their speech, accent and dialect. As a result of this, it is really easy to remember who is who, even though there are, relatively, quite a few characters. I love that Dickens situates his narratives so firmly in their location, constantly mentioning the geography, which allows the reader to really follow the narrative, on both a plot and geographical level.

I must admit that I was expecting to feel more sympathetic for Oliver than Dickens necessarily guides a reader to be, which actually makes for an interesting read. Also, in not pitying Oliver at every moment, it allowed me to be more perceptive of other characters and the action in general.

As with the majority of Dickens’ works, Oliver Twist is a very dark novel, and I can almost imagine the Victorian-style lighting under which all of this action is taking place, which makes the sense of threat and fear all the more apparent. What’s more, though Oliver Twist may be one of Dickens’ shorter works, it is by no means any rich in detail and action- in fact, there is something to be taken from every page.

Even though I was already familiar with the general narrative, I was not aware of the small Dickensian details and nuances of Oliver Twist, and reading this novel was an absolute pleasure of the occasion to do just that. If you are looking to get into Dickens, or Victorian literature as a whole, Oliver Twist is the perfect place to begin!