Confession: I put off reading this book, a translation from the French of a book first published in 2010, for a couple of weeks or more. The idea of a story within a story had too much distance. I want immediacy in fiction. In the end, I got more immediacy than I bargained for. When I picked up The Confidant, I couldn't put it down. In two days of reading, it took me on a wrenching but compelling journey into the world of one French family, exploring love (ranging from mother love to sexual passion), anger, hatred, mourning, infertility, and obsession bordering on madness, all set against the WWII Nazi occupation of France. The occupation is ever-present but never intrudes on the story, providing instead a backdrop of horror and a convenient mechanism for plotting.
In Paris in 1975, Camille Werner is receiving letters and cards of condolence on the death of her mother in an automobile accident. But one long letter doesn't fit the pattern—it is from a man named Louis telling the story of the love of his youth for an elusive girl named Annie who comes in and out of his life. Intriguing, but Camille dismisses it as having no connection with her or her widowed mother. Probably the wrong address. But installments of the love story come week after week, and she is drawn into an irresistible tale. Who wrote this? Why are they sending it to her?
As a narrator, Camille is as elusive as Annie, only revealing herself reluctantly and in bits. She talks of Nicolas, but doesn't explain him—finally we learn that he is the boyfriend who left her. When she casts about for the reason this Louis is sending her the excerpts, she decides it is because she is an editor—another side of her revealed. Perhaps Louis is a clever author who found a way to bypass her desk, crowded with manuscripts, and get his work before her eyes. Finally, Camille casually lets drop another aspect of her life, one that clearly parallels events in Annie's life.
Slowly, these two stories converge. Camille's story may take place in 1975, but Louis and Annie's dates from about 1924 until 1943. Louis' accounts begin with an idyllic, almost pastoral childhood and darken as he goes along; he's not above foreshadowing with hints of the tragedy to come; it could have been averted, he says, if Annie had not allowed herself to be engulfed by the wealthy Monsieur and Madame M. (Everything is initials; the town they live in is N.)
Camille becomes so involved in the tale that she wants to confront the writer, know the truth, and undertakes detailed and lengthy research, trying to find a town beginning with N within two hours driving distance of Paris. Bit by bit, she narrows her search, finding obstacles at every instance and then an occasional nugget of a possibility. And she begins to realize that the writer is speaking directly to her, telling her a story that will forever after change her life. By the time Camille finds the town of N. and the mysterious Louis, it no longer matters. The past is done, the truth revealed.
Almost the entire final third portion of the book is taken up with Louis' transcription of a lengthy story dictated to him by Madame M., a story that reveals maternal devotion but also an almost Dostoevsky-like descent into madnesss, both gripping and horrifying beyond belief.
I was so wrapped up in the book that I even found myself thinking in the same dramatic introspective language that Madame M. used in her story to Louis. For me, that is a great compliment to an author, especially a first-time novelist. Hélène Grémillon may be a new author but she is wise in the vagaries of the human heart. To say much more would spoil the book for the reader.
Don't read the poem at the end of the book until you've read the entire book. Although it is well done, it sums up the whole story, removing the compelling sense that has propelled the narrative. But let me quote the first lines:
I was born from a father
who went to war
leaving behind him
a little pistol for my pocket if I was a boy
and two women whom he loved
each in her own way
two women who didn't yet know
that I would exist.
Born in France in 1977, Hélène Grémillon worked in journalism and advertising before becoming a full-time writer. The Confidant is her first novel. She lives in Paris with singer-songwriter Julien Clerc and their child. The English translation of The Confidant was done by Alison Anderson, an American writer and translator based in Switzerland. Visit the the author's website.
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