French Rhapsody by Antoine Laurain, Emily Boyce (translator) and Jane Aitken (translator)
|Rhapsody by Antoine Laurain, Emily Boyce (translator) and Jane Aitken (translator)|
|Category: General Fiction|
|Reviewer: John Lloyd|
|Summary: A third book from this author to be in English, but perhaps this time the French flavour might be a little too strong for you to see his usual magic. Persevere enough, however, and you do end up with a smile on your face.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 240||Date: October 2016|
|Publisher: Gallic Books|
Thirty-three years. That's how long Alain has lived in blissful ignorance of a letter from a major record label, proposing a meeting between them and The Holograms, the pop group he was in as a teenager. Long since moved on to the heady heights of being a GP, the final arrival of the news inspires a slow-burning midlife crisis in Alain, as he first turns to the nostalgia of hearing their best music, but has to seek out a copy from one of the different colleagues and friends connected to the band instead. They've all moved on in their own separate ways, but what will be the result of picking up all those long-dropped threads?
Unlike a fairly recent Al Pacino movie, where we see the life of a rocker who had once missed out on a letter now in the come-down phase of his career, this troupe had no career whatsoever, beyond just one demo – the tape Alain seeks. We're seeing them as very different beasts indeed, although all do have some unifying connection – they all define their time in modern French history in one distinct way, apart from our investigatory lead man. One was an antiques dealer before he was old enough to normally be interested in such things, while another has become a well-known modern artist, imposing his creations on the public space as hasn't been seen since Mitterand's days; one has a very right-wing idea of how France has been and what it should change into; another is a very politicised Internet entrepreneur. Yes, one has vanished over the hills to Thailand, but the book concerns those others, linked by one set of garage rehearsals and five songs all those years ago, but able to position themselves in the chronology of France in very individual ways.
Which, I'm sure you'll agree, smacks of being quite a high-falutin' subject matter for a populist novel. And that I think is a problem. Earlier in the week of reviewing this, I turned to The President's Hat, evoker of those public works under Mitterand, and the first book of Laurain's to make it to the English market. That was about the spirit of France, and indeed by the end its politics, but on the whole it was about the whimsical journey of the titular titfer from one temporary owner to the next. This work, however, despite the populist appeal of a look back at what-might-have-beens, and a lost letter, does not give the reader anything like that populist hook. It certainly doesn't have the whimsy, social commentary (such as Alain's disgust at the manner of how people in the technological age can contact him and show off their medical problems) regardless. The modern art references didn't surprise me – I've read enough books where the author gives us modern art concepts that are so good they could easily be a better modern artist than the ones we do have – and the lengthy political sections, well… I quickly came to the conclusion this was the least easily translatable book of Laurain's – not in the manner of the language used, but in how successfully the contents would travel. I don't think you can lambast a similar author, Mitch Albom, for being too American.
It seemed I was getting too much that was Laurain the past antiques gallery worker, and too much the Laurain the archivist of the 1980s he's quickly turning into (another mention of their Minitel system, and I'll throw a Ceefax remote at him). I think the nostalgia gets in the way of the book showing us enough effect from Alain's search, and as a result he himself is quite a weak character. But damn it, past the halfway mark the book pulled together very well. You get incredibly strong episodes (like the hat passing on, this could almost be a chain of linked short stories) where you have to swallow the contrivance, or the fantasy, but you just have to fall into step with what the author is giving us. And his ultimate point, hammered home a little perhaps, is a heart-warming one, that made me smile in appreciation of most of the conclusions, and with a feeling that once again I had been swamped by Laurain's individual take on the Gallic charm. It might be a slow-moving patch of quicksand here when he has in the past turned on the full quagmire, but my persistence paid off. After the majority of this book seemed to me to be speaking too much to the French and the French alone, I saw a charming global sentiment I have to admit a liking for.
I must thank the publishers for my review copy.
That aforementioned quagmire was the author's The Red Notebook, pretty much my favourite of all 2015.
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You can read more book reviews or buy French Rhapsody by Antoine Laurain, Emily Boyce (translator) and Jane Aitken (translator) at Amazon.com.
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