There is a fine line between using stereotypes to denigrate or belittle people from particular countries or regions or to poke a little affectionate fun at them. Yorkshire people are among the most generous I have ever met but I still smile at the reaction of the average Yorkshireman when they realise it is raining and they need to pay 5p for a plastic carrier bag. Fiction, however, can throw up some great ‘types’ set in various regions: love stories set in Paris tend, in my experience, to be philosophical and tinged with sadness, crime novels set in Scandinavian countries are heavy on dark themes and blood-stained snow and books set in Australia will, at some point, feature extreme weather. This is not to suggest that these books are clichéd but they do play to their strengths (or rather the strengths of how people think of those regions). Michel Bussi’s crime thrillers have been set in a range of French settings (the Franco-Swiss border, Giverny, the tropical island of La Réunion) so I had high hopes for his latest – featuring the island of Corsica, a place associated (rightly or wrongly) with crime and the Mafia…
Clotilde was 15 years old in 1989. Holidaying, as usual, in her father’s birthplace on the island of Corsica and staying at a campsite on land owned by her grandfather. She is a fairly typical girl of her age – moody, dressing all in black, writing all her thoughts and feelings down in the notebook which never leaves her side – but all normality disappears on the night when the family car goes over a cliff and Clotilde is the only survivor. In 2016, 27 years later, she returns to the island with her husband and her own fifteen-year-old daughter to try to remember the events of that summer. Her memories are sporadic, the notebook containing her thoughts and feelings was never given back to her after her stay in hospital, and the faces from the past she meets give her a variety of contrasting points of view. But then her world is turned upside down when she receives a letter which appears to be from her mother: the mother who perished all those years ago. Her memory gradually resurfaces as she finds out more about the events of that fatal day, old enmities and romances are rekindled and Clotilde’s family are once again in terrible danger. The need for revenge is still active in Corsica.
I really enjoy Michel Bussi’s thrillers. They are atmospheric stories with very, very French settings and, so far, I’ve not yet spotted the real villain before Bussi is ready to reveal them.
Recently I’ve been enjoying some great novels with distinctive French themes and plenty of interesting YA books. So, obviously, given the chance to combine these two interests, I had to give it a try… Throw in some thoughts on body image, attitudes towards Islam and feminism and I think this book was just about perfect for me!
Piglettes is about a group of girls in a provincial French town who find themselves the winners of a rather nasty little contest run by a boy at their school. They are voted as the winners of the ‘Pig Pageant’ – the ugliest girls in school. This is, obviously, out-and-out bullying but our main heroine, Mireille, isn’t going to give the bully the reaction he wants. She just laughs it off – although her internal monologue seems to show that she is not quite as happy with her life as she professes to be – but somehow, when she meets up with and talks to the two other ‘lucky’ winners, she decides that they will cycle across the country to Paris, selling sausages from a trailer, and gatecrash the President’s Bastille Day garden party. Like you do. The three girls, Mireille, Astrid and Hakima, are accompanied by Hakima’s brother (a disabled ex-soldier) and a wonderful friendship develops between them. Mireille is very much in charge initially – she is certainly the fiestiest of the three – but the others all come into their own as time goes by. There is a hint of love interest as Mireille has an instant crush on Kader (Hakima’s brother) but it is all very innocent – the main story is about the girls, how they learn to love themselves, to realise that they don’t need to change in order to fit in with other people’s ideals, and their refusal to accept that they are worthy of being bullied.
I really loved these girls and Mireille in particular. She is a girl who loves her food and doesn’t see why she shouldn’t – she loves cheese even more than I do (which I didn’t think was possible…) – but she also has her problems. As well as her body-image and developing feminism we are shown the complicated relationship she has with her mother and step-father. In the teenage mind, at least, the unknown father is preferable to the known mother but, in the end, Mireille is able to understand all the adults in her life a little better as she becomes a little closer to adulthood herself (but while never losing her ‘sass’. Who says you should?).
I’m going to be honest here – I quite like a bit of Euro-pop. I enjoy watching Eurovision (well, I like the actual songs, but the voting can get a bit annoying), know just about all the Abba songs and used to do the whole dance thing for Whigfield’s Saturday Night. I like some of the cooler stuff too – I was listening to Björk when she was still with the Sugarcubes and, thanks to my brother, am pretty familiar with the work of Manu Chao. When it comes down to it, in terms of pure pop, Europe is just plain more cool than the UK. We do cheese: they do ‘fromage'(which I always think sounds much hipper…)
When I reviewed Antoine Laurain’s previous book I was struck by its charm, subtle romance and all-round general gallic air. I enjoyed it so much that I snapped up the chance to read French Rhapsody, which is where my appreciation of continental pop comes in. Because the heart of this story is Alain Massoulier, a doctor in his 50s, and the band he was a part of in the 1980s. When Alain receives a letter which has been sent over 30 years earlier – offering the band, the Holograms, a recording contract with a major label – he decides to track down the rest. Stan, the drummer, has become a well-known contemporary artist, the keyboard player runs a resort in Thailand, the bass-player is a scarily popular right-wing politician and the singer has returned home to her parent’s hotel near Dijon. The song-writer Pierre died (in a rather dramatic fashion in the window of his antiques store) and his brother, the band’s producer, has become a business guru.
This is another charming story with subtle depths. As well as exploring the lives of the band members we get to consider what they might have been if they had travelled down the trouser leg of reality in which they were pop stars. In the end though we have to focus on life as it actually is rather than might-have-beens. Alain ends the book as a wiser, but possibly a sadder, man: we end the book contemplating whether we’d rather live in a world with 1980s French cold wave music or with 21st century politics. (Clue: as I said, I love a bit of euro-pop…)
We have established that I have the best job in the world. The combination of books, cakes and, frankly, permission to talk to customers about books and cakes is pretty irresistible I think. I’ve had other jobs over the years but, to be honest, doing price changes on shelves full of shower-gel, unpacking deliveries of cds and taking the staples out of boxes and boxes of old invoices were not as interesting. Life-modelling was fun, but mostly because I could read while I worked and if I ate too much cake no-one complained. I think you see the pattern here. I am a very, very lucky person to have a job that I love so much. Of course most people are not so fortunate…
Guylain Vignolles is one of the unluckiest of the unlucky ones. He, like me, loves reading but his job is to destroy books in a huge machine at a pulping factory. Now I know that books get pulped but I also know that some publishers used to send books to be punched full of holes in prisons. Destroying books seems more appropriate as a punishment than as a job in my opinion. Guylain, however, knows this is an awful job and to achieve some kind of karmic balance he spends his journey into work each morning reading out loud, on the 6.27 train, random pages which he rescues from the depths of The Beast (as he has named the pulping machine). There are other characters – a security guard who declaims in Alexandrines, work colleagues who see the books just as so much tonnage to get through and one who was invalided out of the job after a horrific accident – but the story really starts to develop when Guylain finds a memory-stick containing the diary of a young woman. He starts to read these diary entries on his daily commute and then realises he needs to find the author of the words he is reading.
We Brits associate Paris and the French with love but often we want nice, safe English love stories set in the city of romance. This is a wonderfully gallic novel, where romance and intellectualism reign supreme. Without resorting to saccharine sweetness, but with style and wit, this book left me with a serious case of the warm fuzzies which, I hope, will see me through an entire English spring….