The Mystery of Henri Pick (2016): David Foenkinos

★★★★

Imagine a library of rejected manuscripts, where failed books find a new home. Actually, it doesn’t take too much imagination, because such a place really does exist: the Brautigan Library in Vancouver, Washington, named after the author Richard Brautigan, who invented such a library in his novel The Abortion. In The Mystery of Henri Pick, the librarian Jean-Pierre Gourvec forms a similar collection in his small Breton town of Crozon. For decades, shelves of rejected stories slumber in the back of the town library until, some years after Gourvec’s death, something remarkable happens. Up-and-coming young editor Delphine Despero, at home on a visit to her parents, visits the library of rejected manuscripts with her author boyfriend. They discover a remarkable text – a masterpiece, signed by one Henri Pick. Snapped up by the publishing world, this book becomes a sensation, less for its content than for the romantic story of its creation. But how did the late Pick, a humble pizza chef with no discernable literary leanings, come to create such a beautiful novel? As Crozon adjusts to its new literary fame, the novel begins to affect the lives of those connected with it. And then a maverick journalist raises a controversial prospect. What if the novel isn’t really by Pick at all?

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In the Name of the King (2011): A.L. Berridge

★★★★½

Chevalier: Book 2

As the world grows stranger, I’ve taken comfort in something so satisfying, so delightful and escapist, that it should almost be prescribed on the NHS. It’s been over two years since I read Honour and the Sword, the first of A.L. Berridge’s novels about the Chevalier de Roland, but I don’t want you to think that betokens a lack of enthusiasm. On the contrary! This is a sequel but also – apparently – the last book in the series, because it was published in 2011 and Berridge has gone alarmingly quiet in recent years. I didn’t want to get to the end too quickly, so I’ve been saving it for a moment when I really need it. And now, with new rules bidding us stay at home, my annual trip to Paris cancelled, and no knowledge of when it will end, I needed it. So I escaped to France in 1640, to a world of duels, honour and skirmishes; of fetes in the Luxembourg Gardens and gritty subterfuge in the forests; of intrigues and plots, romance, war, and Cardinal Richelieu bestriding the world like a (fading) colossus.

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Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Delight) (1883): Émile Zola

★★★★

Les Rougon-Macquart: Book 11

My first book of 2020 was Au Bonheur des Dames or The Ladies’ Delight, part of Zola’s sweeping Rougon-Macquart cycle, which explores various facets of 19th-century French life. This is the first time I’ve read Zola and I wondered whether it would matter that I was leaping right in at Book 11 of the series, but in fact Au Bonheur des Dames works perfectly as a standalone novel. No doubt I would have recognised certain characters if I’d read the other books, and I may have known a little more background about Octave Mouret, but I didn’t feel that I was missing out. I chose to start here because it’s supposed to be one of Zola’s more upbeat and cheerful novels – perfect for the start of a new year – and it was rather fitting for January, in that it focuses on the rise and development of a great department store. Zola writes of ‘the continuous purring of a machine at work, the customers shovelled in, heaped in front of the displays and dazzled by the goods, before being hurled against the cash desks‘. Well, in last week’s sales I was one of those being hurled, and so it added an extra level of interest and amusement to hear about how such great shops came into being. A fascinating story of a time of frenzied change.

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A Breath of French Air (1959): H.E. Bates

★★★

The Larkin Family: Book 2

All might be radiant and perfick in the Kent countryside, but everyone needs a holiday now and again. With Mariette wilting under low spirits, and Ma growing weary of her newborn Oscar’s incessant demands for milk, Pa lets himself be convinced that they could really do with a trip to France. It does require persuasion, of course, because Pa finds it hard to believe that anywhere could be more lovely than home – but the one thing he loves more than home is his family, and he’s willing to do anything to make them happy. Encouraged by the enthusiastic Charley – who spent summers in Brittany as a child – Pa begins to pick up a few useful phrases of French, and the whole Larkin family piles into the Rolls and sets off for a spot of continental leisure.

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Adèle (2014): Leïla Slimani

★★★

Having read Leïla Slimani’s Lullaby last year, I was keen to try her new novel, Adèle. Like Lullaby, this takes us beyond the polished facade of a comfortable, upper-middle-class Parisian family and shows us the hypocrisy and unhappiness within. This time our protagonists are Adèle, a journalist, and her husband Richard, a successful surgeon. They have a son, Lucien, and spend Christmas holidays with Richard’s wealthy family in the country. It’s a superficially perfect existence; but there are cracks beneath the surface. Adèle, the beautiful, serene, accomplished wife, hides a dark secret: ever since she was a child, she has been a sex addict, compulsively seeking out sensual experiences with as many people as she can, using these moments to anchor herself against the great, vast meaninglessness of the world. Yet Adèle’s time is running out and, when she makes a pass at a colleague of Richard’s, her whole carefully-constructed world is about to collapse.

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Our Life in the Forest (2017): Marie Darrieussecq

★★½

The future. Near? Distant? It’s hard to say. A woman writes in an old notebook in a forest, hurrying to get everything down. She’s cold, tired, falling to pieces. She and her companions are fugitives from the status quo and the government will find them, soon. They’ve done their best, but is that enough? What does it achieve? There isn’t much time but someone has to record the truth. And so this woman, formerly a psychologist, turns her gaze upon herself: her privileged position as one of the social elite, measured not by wealth or status but by the fact that she has a ‘half’, a clone, identical in all ways to herself, a second body kept in permanent sleep, yet always ready to replace any of her organs or body parts that malfunction. Hers is a story of gradual ethical awakening, of questioning, prompted by the arrival in her office one day of an unusual patient: the ‘clicker’. Darrieussecq’s novel is a curious beast: somewhat half-baked, somewhere along the line between sci-fi novel and ethical fable. It will inevitably be compared to Kashuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, but differs in one crucial aspect: a lack of heart.

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Monet and Architecture

Monet: Houses of Parliament

(National Gallery, London, closed on 29 July 2018)

And I’m late again in posting about an exhibition. Sorry about this: summer travelling really isn’t conducive to getting things done on time. Anyway, it’ll be a good way to look back on a lovely show. Now, I’ll be upfront: I have not traditionally been a great fan of Monet. I don’t dislike his pictures – he doesn’t make me shudder, as some late female nudes by Renoir do – but, when I’ve seen his paintings in museums, they’ve rarely moved me to anything more than dutiful appreciation. As ever, much of my indifference was due to a lack of understanding. And that’s why the National Gallery’s present exhibition was such a revelation to me, because it rescued those waterlilies and seascapes and rivers from their chocolate-box ubiquity and reframed them as part of a dynamic story of experimentation and evocation. Monet was a painter of light and air and water, but he was also an inveterate painter of architecture, and this exhibition shows how he used a variety of man-made structures to order his compositions, emphasise the interplay between man and nature, and display the transformative power of light.

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Nine Coaches Waiting (1958): Mary Stewart

★★★★

I remember Helen wrote about this with enthusiasm some years ago and, since then, I’ve been keen to read it. Fortunately I found a copy during a very ‘productive’ recent visit to Hay-on-Wye and pounced upon it with great glee as ideal summer reading. Although I’ve had Mary Stewart’s Merlin novels sitting on my shelf for some time, this is the first of her books that I’ve actually read and so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. But with delight I found myself drawn into its deliciously Gothic modern tale of a governess in a remote French chateau: a tale of avarice, greed and attempted murder. After all, when you are alone in the world, who can you trust?

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1610: A Sundial in a Grave (2003): Mary Gentle

★★★½

I have a mixed relationship with the author Mary Gentle, having now read two of her books: Ilario, long before I started this blog, and Black Opera some years ago. 1610 has been sitting on my shelf for over a year and, in the course of a warm, sunny weekend, I decided to give it a go. A sexual assault in the first few chapters gave me pause, but I pressed on regardless and soon found myself in the midst of a very enjoyable swashbuckler, populated with spies, rogues, kings, mathematicians and cross-dressing swordsmen – and taking in the France of Marie de’ Medici, the England of James I and, unexpectedly, Japan in the years before the Sukoku Edict closed its borders. I should stress that this isn’t a fantasy, but a rollicking historical adventure with a few hints of the mystical: best described, perhaps, as The Three Musketeers with added esoterica.

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Lullaby (2016): Leïla Slimani

★★★½

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Leïla Slimani’s bestselling novel evidently strikes a chord with its readers and it isn’t hard to see why. It plays on the deepest fears that any parent can have. What if our children are most at risk from those we’ve hired to care for them? On the very first page, we’re shown a horrific scene: two children brutally murdered, their nanny lying with self-inflicted wounds beside them. It’s a shocking, apparently senseless crime. But then Slimani takes us back, to tell the story of the family, the nanny and the children. Her novel raises uncomfortable but necessary questions about domestic service, modern parenting, class, and the desire to be needed.

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