A Long Way Off by Pascal Garnier

Translated by Emily Boyce

Reviewed by Annabel

For the past eight years, Gallic Books have been translating and publishing the gloriously black-humored noir novellas of Pascal Garnier. Garnier, who died in 2010, turned to writing in his thirties writing over sixty books in a wide variety of genres; he turned to noir in the 1990s. A Long Way Off was his twelfth and final one of these books, published in France shortly before his death, and it’s a cracker.

A Long Way Off is translated by Emily Boyce, one of the in-house translating team at Gallic Books, who has translated half of the series. Emily talked to Shiny New Books about translating The Islanders which is set at Christmas back in 2014 (here).

Garnier’s novellas are characterised by taking ordinary folk who are trapped in their ordinary lives and seeing what happens when they are pushed to their limits when something extraordinary happens, turning ordinary people into grotesque versions of themselves. They’ve been likened to Simenon’s romans durs, but I find Garnier’s books both bleaker and blacker in humour for the most part than Simenon’s. Their contemporary settings add an extra ‘it could happen here’ frisson of excitement.

A Long Way Off begins at a dinner party. Marc feels he has nothing in common with the other diners and is destined to remain silent all evening until one mentions the town of Agen, a town in southwestern France famed for its prunes, and Marc exclaims, “I love Agen too!” to his partner Chloe’s embarrassment.

It’s fair to say that this is the tipping point for Marc, mid-life crisis beckons. Chloe comes home to find him in tears which he blames on chopping onions, he buys a fat cat on the way home one day. Then he decides to visit his grown-up daughter Anne on a day other than their normal one. Anne is institutionalised, for what, we’re not told.

‘Have you seen your mother recently’
‘Yes’
‘How is she?’
‘She talks too much.’
Edith always had been a blabbermouth. He wondered how time had treated her. Since their divorce twenty years earlier he had only seen her once, when Anne had gone into Perray-Vauclause. She was as beautiful then, and as much of a pain in the arse, as she’d ever been.

Meanwhile Marc is getting more and more restless at home cluttered with all Chloe’s shabby chic that she buys and restores. When he returns to see Anne on the proper day, on the spur of the moment, he proposes to take her out on a trip to the seaside despite it being out of season. The doctor is easily persuaded to let Anne out once Marc signs a disclaimer – so off they set to Le Touquet, with Boudu the cat in his box on the back seat.

Thus, begins their road trip, and you just know that things are going to go very, very wrong. I thought back to another impromptu road trip in The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun by Sébastien Japrisot (reviewed here). The initial scenario of father and daughter sharing a hotel room couldn’t help but remind me of another novella, but reversed – in Véronique Olmi’s Beyond the Sea, which tells the story of a mother who couldn’t cope and her two sons at a run-down French seaside resort. However, that’s where the similarities end as Anne sets about enjoying her freedom in ever stranger ways. I shouldn’t say more other than that they decide to head for Agen and as they go, a trail of destruction and disappearances seems to follow them, building up to a truly unpredictable climax.

A Long Way Off is very nasty indeed, but Garnier’s gallows humour makes for an ever-entertaining read, what a way to sign off your writing career!

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Annabel is one of the Shiny editors.

Pascal Garnier, A Long Way Off, trans Emily Boyce (Gallic Books, 2020) ISBN 9781910477779, 112 pages, paperback original.

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