The Readers Room by Antoine Laurain

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The Readers Room by Antoine Laurain

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Laurain shows us the problems an anonymous hit novel has for a small group of publishers, but by trying something too far removed from his usual output may have caused some problems of his own.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: September 2020
Publisher: Gallic Books
ISBN: 978-1910477977

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Violaine's publishing house has had a great success, and it was through the slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts. The three people who work in the Readers' Room to sift through what is ninety nine per cent dross – plus the fourth advisor in her rarefied mansion up the road – all agreed the book would be a huge smash, and so it has proven. But there are several 'howevers' to that. As in, however – Violaine herself is not having life all her own way, for she has been involved in a near-fatal accident, and starts this book coming round from a coma. And, however – despite all urging, the author of the book has never once made themselves known to the publishers in person, and in fact offered up a most peculiar statement-come-threat in their last email. What is going to befall Violaine, her memory, her staff – and how much is any of it due to the hit novel? And just where the heck did that come from?

I always relish a new novel from Antoine Laurain, and this is his latest that came out in French in January 2020, so the translation has been a prompt one. They generally are likeable, and highly readable. However – and there's that word again – this one did not quite gel in as friendly a fashion. Gone is the sense of Paris being a character, and the unique French ambience has been dropped. What we have is a much more mysterious feel, and the scattershot approach to the story, concentrating on first the people, then the source of the book, then its apparent effect, and back, is nowhere near as amenable and agreeable a read as Laurain normally provides.

We're told what we have in our hands is concerning its mystery, love and the power of books, and I have to say it's only really at the end, when we've finally had all the threads and timelines put on the reel to be spun into something wonderful do we really find out that's true. And I didn't think it was that true, unfortunately – or if so, it's a lot less unequivocally obvious as before. Laurain has given us testimonies to love before, and this is his slenderest. It doesn't really sell a love of the printed word, either – although that may be mostly due to the few excerpts we get being quite awful, with an unlikeable, pompous iciness.

There may be a further, final problem with this volume, and one that is not at all the fault of these pages, in that I have already read a novel this year that out-Laurains Laurain. The Mystery of Henri Pick by David Foenkinos was just joyous fun from start to finish, and hits every mark labelled mystery, love and the power of books. The Readers' Room certainly provided me with a read that had just as much potential, and a peculiar mystery that demanded I find the truth about, but I did not find Laurain as welcome a guide to peculiar mysteries as he is to his usual whimsy.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

There's little French about the charm in Daisy by J Paul Henderson but in amongst its quirks it's there in spades.

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