The Confidant by Helene Gremillion and Alison Anderson (translator)
|The Confidant by Helene Gremillion and Alison Anderson (translator)|
|Category: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Ani Johnson|
|Summary: A bit of a slow burner but will amply reward patience with startling revelations formed through variations of viewpoint. In a nutshell, what would you do to keep a baby, whether your own or not?|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 262||Date: September 2012|
|Publisher: Gallic Books|
It's 1975 and Camille, having lost her father a while ago, is now coming to terms with the recent death of her mother. After plucking up courage and strength, she goes through the condolence cards but there's one item in the correspondence pile that's out of place. It's addressed to her but from Louis (whom she doesn't know) about Annie (of whom she's never heard). As Louis pours out his story, reminiscing about his youth in wartime France, Camille is convinced it's a mistake; she shouldn't have received it. However the envelope is definitely addressed to her and, what's more, this won't be the last instalment of Louis' sad memoir that comes through the post.
I started debut French author Helene Gremillion's novel a little anxiously. The characters seemed hard to engage with and the events, with the odd exception, appeared a bit mundane and draggy. Perhaps it was the translation from the French? BUT then Annie started revealing her story through Louis' letters and the novel changed from a Ford Mondeo to a Ferrari.
Without revealing spoilers, this is the story of Annie's venture into surrogate motherhood for Madame M, a well-heeled lady with whom Annie paints and spends time. Madame has an odd relationship with her husband so perhaps it can be rejuvenated with the child that she's unable to give him? With that motivation she plots an alternative route for motherhood involving Annie. Meanwhile poor (and a little wet) Louis loves Annie, wanting nothing more than a life with her. As the story evolves all the parties (including Monsieur M) get a lot more than they bargained for.
Despite its global importance, the war isn't a major player. It goes on in the background, making Parisian life increasingly difficult. Occasionally Nazis and their effect on everyday life slam into sharp focus, adding another layer of discomfort but on the whole this is a timeless story that would unfold in an almost identical way if there was no war on at all. However, if you're looking for pervading themes, there are two that run through the novel like ripples through ice cream.
The backbone of the novel is a look at motherhood. What is it? Is it defined by the act of giving birth? Does the birth mother give rights away when she hands over her baby? This is a hard enough question in today's more emotionally aware society, but even more unsettling in a time when surrogacy was ignored and unacknowledged.
The second major theme is the nature and subjectivity of truth, a factor that Helene Gremillion explores devastatingly well. We read most of the book with a set of preconceived judgements and then we're treated to other characters' versions and nothing seems certain I would love to expound on the characters' characters (if you see what I mean) but as our perceptions of them change along with that of events, I would give too much away. (Apart from my view of Louis, that is: I never wavered from thinking he's wet.)
Don't worry about the ease with which you guess why Camille receives the letters, by the way. We (and Camille) realise pretty early on. It's the other twists that will knock the wind out of you and the biggest tear jerker of a twist is left to the very end.
Being analytical, this is a 5-star book with a 3-star start, so I'm splitting the difference for a 4-star rating. Having said that, this is just the start of a writing career that promises great achievements ahead for the author and, indeed, for those of us eager for Helene Gremillon's next book.
A special thank you to Gallic Books for sending us a copy of this book for review.
If you've enjoyed this and would like to read another novel that gradually reveals a past in WWII France, we suggest Five Quarters of the Orange by Joanne Harris.
You can read more book reviews or buy The Confidant by Helene Gremillion and Alison Anderson (translator) at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy The Confidant by Helene Gremillion and Alison Anderson (translator) at Amazon.com.
Like to comment on this review?
Just send us an email and we'll put the best up on the site.