Savages: The Wedding by Sabri Louatah

Translated by Gavin Bowd

Reviewed by Annabel

This debut novel is the first volume of Louatah’s planned Saint-Étienne quartet named after the French city in which its protagonists reside. Saint-Étienne is south-west of Lyon and capital of the Loire department, right in the middle-east of France. This is perhaps a deliberate choice, for the protagonists of this series are Middle-Eastern – mostly from Algeria.

The book has been a bestseller in France; Louatah has been hailed as ‘the French Philip Roth’ and compared to Knausgaard and others too; film rights have been sold.

The story begins with Idder Chaouch, one of the remaining candidates in the running for the French presidential elections. Chaouch, of Algerian extraction, is in his late forties and, to his aides’ consternation, can’t stop breaking into song at the merest suggestion of a song lyric. While annoying to some, this habit is also great for defusing tension in difficult audiences giving Chaouch the opportunity to come back with his political points. They’re campaigning in the South, where Chaouch can’t win – but his American adviser tells him that gaining a few percentage points can help. So Chaouch stays and has dinner with his daughter Jasmine and her filmstar boyfriend Fouad.

Now we relocate to Saint-Étienne. It’s the day of the elections and there’s going to be a big wedding:

Soon they would have to decide: who would stay behind, ‘nice and quiet’ at the community centre and who would leave for the town hall. The bride’s family was too large and not everyone would fit in, especially given the fact that the mayor wasn’t known for his patience in these situations. His predecessor (a left-wing independent) had quite simply banned Saturday weddings, to spare the town’s peaceful residents all the honking, Rai and flashy cars draped with Algerian flags. In spite of his right-leaning tendencies, the new mayor had lifted the ban, but threatened to reimpose it every time an overexcited tribe wreaked havoc in the house of the Republic.

We then start to meet a whole host of aunts, uncles, cousins and more in the groom’s family, the Nerrouches. Dounia, the groom Slim’s mother, is, naturally, panicking, especially when she learns that Fouad’s train is late – he’s coming down from Paris to be best man. Dounia’s sister Rabia is searching for Krim (short for Abdelkrim), who has been smoking hash behind the gym. Krim, still a teenager, had been earning money as a lookout for the local drug baron, but helped himself and got into trouble. It took ‘all of the diplomatic talent of his powerful cousin, Nazir, Slim’s big brother, to calm the fury of the lord of the Saint-Étienne underworld…’

Nazir is conspicuous by his physical absence at the wedding, but he sends Krim an ominous text, the first of many he’ll receive:

From N:

D-1, I hope you’re ready.

Soon the wedding and party are in full swing – the music is too loud, the old folk are putting up with it. Dounia and Rabia are cross that they’re not playing any Kabyle songs. The Nerrouches are Kabyle – an ethnic Berber people from Algeria – and there is a rivalry between them and the bride’s family. The hall is full of low-grade bickering between relatives, so no-one notices Krim disappear. The book’s blurb essentially tells you the rest of the story of this first volume, and some of what will happen in the next. I won’t explain further here to save spoiling it for others, but it did add to making me want to read on in the series.

Amongst the many members of the Nerrouche family, there are some notable characters. The matriarchal infighting rather reminded me of the women in Manil Suri’s The Death of Vishnu. The action is all about the young men of the family though – Krim, Nazir and Fouad – it will be fascinating to see how their arcs develop. I also really liked Idder Chaouch; I couldn’t help but recognise a touch of the West Wing’s Jed Bartlet in him, which made him a very likeable presidential candidate indeed.

Will this saga translate and resonate similarly with English audiences? For those of us who are fans of gritty European TV dramas like the superb French Spiral, and US imports like The Wire and The Sopranos, it will. However, this first volume has a large cast of characters to introduce (my proof copy didn’t have the family tree that finished books will have) and it was hard to keep track of who was who. By setting most of the action during a single day at a huge wedding celebration, it is both intense and diffuse simultaneously.

Louatah, who is still in his twenties, was inspired by Dostoyevsky to write this novel, as riots were raging over France in 2005. As a political thriller and social commentary about the experience of immigrants in France Savages: The Wedding was totally absorbing. There’s a lot to get to grips with as in any drama’s opening episode – I’m sure it will hit its stride in the next volume, The Spectre, published in August, which I’m looking forward to reading.

Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books, and also blogs here.

Sabri Louatah, Savages: The Wedding (Corsair, 2018), ISBN: 978-1472153227, trade paperback, 256 pages.

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