Translated by Alison Anderson
Reviewed by Harriet
Way back in the early days of Shiny (issue 5 to be exact) I reviewed Anna Gavalda’s slender novel Billie. As I said in that review, I was first introduced to Gavalda in a French class, where we were reading and translating her celebrated novel Ensemble, C’est Tout, or Hunting and Gathering in English, which is also the English title of the film of the novel, starring Audrey Tatou and Daniel Auteuil. A number of years have gone by since then, during which she published a novel that has not been translated. Now we have a selection of newly translated short stories by Gavalda, a genre in which she actually began her publishing career.
The Cracks in our Armour is a good title for this collection, as each story focuses on an individual who is shown stripped down to the very innermost workings of their psyche. These are people who you might not look at with any interest – possibly even with disapproval – but when we see their inner lives, it’s impossible not to feel great sympathy and compassion for them. So we have the girl on the late night metro, showing off her lovely body in a too tight t-shirt; the young widowed mother, obviously an alcoholic; the woman unable to break off her affair with a married man; the man forced to take his old, sick dog to the vet for the last time; the father trying to please his six-year-old daughter with a Happy Meal; another father dealing with his son’s problems at school; the man far from home in a lonely hotel room, grieving for his dead friend; and the middle-aged man on the long distance train to Paris, feeling his age as he regretfully watches a couple of young women enjoying themselves. Each of these people is given their own voice, so they become intensely real in their vulnerability.
The girl in ‘Courtly Love’ works in a pet shop. It’s hard work and her employer is not kind, but she loves the animals and they love her. As the story begins, her friend has persuaded her, much against her will, to go to a party in the centre of Paris. It’s no good protesting that she has nothing to wear – the friend lends her a t-shirt she can hardly get into and drags her onto the train. At the party, which is in an art gallery, she is approached by a young man who seems genuinely interested in talking to her. He disappears for a while and she’s disappointed but not surprised – he’s from a much grander social sphere that she is used to. But just as she’s about to leave he reappears, and they leave together. He tells her he’s a poet, and recites love poems to her. She can’t face taking him to her shabby apartment, so they end up in a hotel room. But before he wakes in the morning, she’s gone.
My body is who I am.
It is me, too. It’s me who is living inside it and…
And that is why, every time, I get fleeced.
Or maybe tarred and feathered, I should say.
Why should this time be any different? But this time it was, because of the poetry. ‘How classy is that?’
In ‘Resistance Fighter’, a young widow is living in a small apartment in the centre of Paris. Her life centres around her two small children, and her trips to the supermarket, where she tries to hide the daily purchase of a bottle of whiskey, to be consumed when the children are in bed. Every morning she has a coffee in a local bar, and becomes fascinated by a woman who is always having her breakfast in there, constantly on the phone to what, judging by her expressions and tone of voice, must be her lover. Eventually the two women start talking, and the widow invites her new friend to dinner. The evening goes well, and after the children are in bed they settle down with the whiskey and the confidences start. Yes, the man is married. No, he will never leave his wife. No, she is not happy. So then, should she not break up with him? They talk all night. Just as they are finally going to sleep, it seems that she might have finally got the courage to end the relationship. But ‘I don’t know. In the morning you had already struck camp and I never saw you again’.
I could go on. I particularly loved the story about the man taking a delicate and fussy young lady out for lunch – her demands seem a little excessive, and he seems a little over anxious to please her. It’s only at the end of the story that you find out she is his six-year-old daughter. Also memorable was the final story, ‘A Boy’ – obviously an ironic title as the protagonist is a middle-aged man, but of course not really ironic as inside he is just as anxious and self-conscious as he had been in his youth – I’ll never look at a man fast asleep on a train in quite the same way again.
The writing here, as you can see from the quotation above, is often spare, very delicate, and I suppose could be called poetic. There’s an enormous amount of tenderness here for these vulnerable people. You could find the stories depressing, as these are often sad lives, but the very fact that the speakers are willing to reveal their own weaknesses makes you feel that they may be able to move forward and confront whatever is holding them back. The whole collection is a tribute to Gavalda’s perceptiveness and ability to empathise. The publishers blurb describes them as ‘stories of suffering and salvation’. The translation by Alison Anderson is excellent. Well worth a read.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Anna Gavalda, The Cracks in Our Armour, trans. Alison Anderson (Europa, 2019). 978-1787701632, 192pp., paperback.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)