The Islanders by Pascal Garnier

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Translated by Emily Boyce

Reviewed by Annabel 

I am a recent convert to the dark noir novels of French author Pascal Garnier. There has been a lot of interest around the English-speaking web since Gallic Books started publishing their translations in 2012 – they total six at the moment, with more to come.

Garnier, who died in 2010 aged 60, didn’t start writing until his mid-thirties having travelled a lot and failed to be a rock and roller. He began with many children’s stories, adding noir to his output in the mid-1990s. When you look him up, you’ll see him mentioned as the heir to Simenon. Any resemblance isn’t to Maigret though, rather to Simenon’s darker and edgier romans durs – literally hard novels. (If you’ve not read any of these, Dirty Snow is astonishingly good by the way).

Garnier’s short novels explore the horrors that can transform ordinary life out in the suburbs and industrial hinterlands outside the big cities. They’re intensely claustrophobic and are populated by casts of characters at the end of their tethers.

As The Islanders begins it is the week before Christmas and Olivier is on a TGV train back towards Paris from the south after receiving some bad news:

Olivier had always found his mother to be a pain in the neck. But dying a few days before Christmas, in Versailles, at minus seventeen degrees? That was something else.
The view from the window changed from fields to suburban houses, to four-storey buildings, to tower blocks. A few minutes later, Olivier was in Paris.

He’s hoping to wrap up the details of arranging his mother’s funeral and get back to his wife Odile in time for Christmas. He arrives in Versailles and goes to pick up the keys from her friend Madeleine.

From the moment they laid eyes on one another, he could see she had hated him for a long time.

You can imagine Madeleine’s sense of schadenfreude then when she tells Olivier that the funeral may have to be delayed until after Christmas – so many are dying in the extreme cold. Thus, is the Christmas from hell set up for Olivier who has to stay in the apartment where everything ‘had been touched by the hand of a dead person’.

We pause to meet the other main characters in this story. Jeanne shares an apartment with her brother Rodolphe. He is blind, terribly obese and thoroughly gross; Jeanne has fallen into being his carer. Rodolphe likes nothing better than to sit in front of his favourite painting (The Raft of the Medusa by Géricault) in the Louvre, luring someone to describe it to him and then intimidating the poor sod with an angry outpouring of his superior knowledge. His character is very much in the mould of Ignatius J Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.

…Rodolphe was not an intrinsically bad person. It was only repeated rejection that had made him that way. Sometimes she wished he would die, for his own good. Unlike her, he could not bear the solitude nature had inflicted on him. But despite the layer of fat strangling it, his heart carried on mercilessly beating.

When their doorbell rings, Jeanne goes to answer it:

‘Hi, I’m your neighbour, or rather, your neighbour’s son, and I…’
Olivier shrank back. The black pupils in the eyes of the woman who had just opened the door to him looked like two great lead wrecking balls. An entire wall of his past went crashing to the ground, leaving nothing behind it.

Jeanne and Olivier were teenaged lovers. Quickly, we come to realise that something terrible happened to them all those years ago, but we won’t find out details for some time. However, something in Olivier now snaps and in a life-changing moment, he lets himself be drawn back in again.

Our Christmas scenario is nearly complete. We have history between the stranded son and his old lover, her brother … and Roland – a homeless young man that Rodolphe befriends in town and decides to bring home to share their Christmas. It’s going to be a very black Christmas indeed, will any of them emerge at the other side?

In just 144 pages, Garnier serves up a banquet of darkly comic noir. Dredging up the past at Christmas is never a good thing and as each nugget of their history is exposed and each of the many bottles of booze is consumed, tensions get murderously strained. The horrors keep piling on, each worse than the last. Its inevitability reminded me very much of Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party – you end up peering through your fingers, trying to stifle involuntary laughter in very much the same way.

If you like a grim comedy that explores the dark side of human nature in a classic noir style, then Garnier is your man. For how not to do the festive season, you can’t do better than this novel – Merry Christmas!

Read translator Emily Boyce’s perspective on Garnier’s Gallic Christmas noir in our BookBuzz section here.

Annabel is one of the Shiny New Books editors, and although she would love to see Paris all lit up and snowy, prefers to be at home for Christmas.

Pascal Garnier, The Islanders (Gallic Books, London, Nov 2014) 978-1908313720, paperback original, 144 pages.

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