In her cottage in the French countryside, an old woman receives an unexpected visitor: a boy whispering in an unfamiliar language,and bringing sheaves of paper, in the letters and jottings of her youngest son. Sometime before – and not even the locals who relate the story can remember how long – her son had done as she had told him , and left to seek his fortune on a Carribean island. Once there, the promised wealth had disastrously eluded him – and now, not far from the old woman’s cottage, the locals see a mysterious stranger, with a boy and a dog, carrying planks into the woods to build a place to live…
“Désbordes seeks to show that there is no such thing as an ending, that-like life itself-stories repeat themselves…her writing resembles an extended poem with an incantory quality, like a French version of Eliot’s Four Quartets.”(Observer)
This book is probably very different from any other book you have read, and, it has to be said, will not be to everyone’s taste. When I began reading the first chapter, it was not long before I questioned myself. Did I really need to read this, or want to read it? It wasn’t the content that was the problem. It was the style of writing, which at first appears to be almost totally without punctuation. However, after persisting with it a while longer, I realised that this is the whole point of the book. The commentary from the locals that the critic from the Observer said resembled an incantory style, for me was more like the chorus in some of the Greek plays of the past. The voices tell the story from their perspective, but speculating all the time on the thoughts and feelings of the three main characters, the woman, her son and the young boy. Each voice is given a chance to describe what they see and understand, and you hear it all in a semi-jumbled form as if listening to a crowd of people all talking at once, randomly all telling the same story. The narrative is repetitious, and at first I found this tedious, but later enjoyed it, as I was intriqued to see how the author could say the same thing over and over, yet each time, alter or add something minutely, giving away a few more details, or changing the mood or tone of the narrative a little. This very clever style, for me, embodied the message of the story…that life, and all the stories, events and seasons are neverending. No one story ever ends completely before it is begun again, and then again, just as the winter never quite ends, but repeats year after year. Because of this, life and time itself merge into one long amorphous story, where humans become lost and entangled, losing individuality, and sense of purpose. The same things happen, the same questions are asked, and the same answers given. The same feelings are expressed, and the same opinions, but nothing changes, as everything is cyclical like the seasons and each life ends with the start of another.
The story is deceptively simple. The young man goes to seek his fortune in a foreign land, at the behest of his mother, is away for twenty or more years, but does not find the wealth he seeks and returns. He does not look for his mother, but builds a shack in a copse nearby and shortly afterwards succumbs to the illness which has stalked him persistantly throughout his journey home. Despite this outward simplicity, I found that there were many questions I wanted to ask. They had no proof that the man was who they thought he was. It was all supposition. There are lots of unanswered questions about his relationship with his mother. What had happened to the other sons? Why would a mother ask her son to do something like this in the first place? Many many questions arising from this short narrative, but which make us question are own beliefs about the world around us and our perception of it, and our perceptions about how others see it and respond to it. Is this indeed a story that has been repeated over the centuries, time after time, in many continents? Is it something that goes on all the time, but we lose sight of it in all the details of everyday life?
I really liked this book, but it did take me a couple of chapters to get into it and understand the authors style. Once I had grasped the concept I thorougly enjoyed it and look forward to reading more from this author, whose debut novel La Demande (The Maid’s Request) was published to great critical acclaim.