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Boxes by Pascal Garnier and Melanie Florence (translator)

Meet Brice. He's an illustrator, who had picked an ideal house in the country with his journalist wife, only for her to disappear assumed dead on assignment abroad. Therefore he's having to make the move himself, which he does – but without her at the other end he finds it hard to kick his new life into gear. Yes, a cat adopts him, and he gets to know the names of some new people, but that's it. What's more, one of those people is Blanche, attired most suitably in all-white, who herself is missing someone – someone of whom Brice is the spitting image…

Boxes by Pascal Garnier and Melanie Florence (translator)

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Starting at the end, this posthumous novel from a French master proves a great calling card for he who had been a subtle, quirky and clever storyteller.
Buy? YES Borrow? YES
Pages: 176 Date: May 2015
Publisher: Gallic Books
ISBN: 9781910477045

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I have to admit to never having heard of this author before alighting on this book. And I know it's the job of blurb writers and publishers to make one want to read everything they put out, but damn it a lot of his books they have released into the British marketplace sound completely riveting, enjoyable for being slightly off-kilter, but just plain good stories. All of which means, of course, that Garnier himself has done his part, and done his work well too. There is evidence of this on all these pages, even in translation – an ease with wordplay that makes great similes (smoke gathered in his throat like a Brillo pad) crop up on you most unassumingly. There's a deftness in alignment with the simple story – man falls apart in a world where it's not how far you fall but who with that is most variable and most important – which is what suggests to me Garnier is going to be eminently readable, whatever volume of his you choose. He also had a major sideline in children's writing, before dying at an early 60, in 2010, leaving this alone as a swansong. It looks like of the seven adult novels published in English, none are over 200 pages.

They also would seem to have a kinship with the underdog – people living in a strange place, people working an unusual job with extraordinary people. Here the mundane world of Brice, living out of tins in amongst all the unopened packing crates (the novel is called Cartons in French too) is only going to become more extreme, however, and the pleasure is shared by the reader seeing how brilliantly richly the story is told to us, and that person intrigued with the clever little plot. There's nothing as dark as a really buried secret here (or not for Brice, anyway) – more a failure of his to cooperate with life. Life, that is, as other people want it. But I've become a new person through this book, at the behest of others – I have found an instant affinity with those people who have written the blurbs for his novels. While this example might have been slightly more expansive, slightly more lively and topsy-turvy perhaps than it was, I have joined the band of people who spend their time suggesting Garnier's name as one to read.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

File in between Talking to Ghosts by Herve Le Corre and Frank Wynne (Translator) for the crime, and a great favourite for being 2015's best, The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain, Emily Boyce (translator) and Jane Aitken (translator).

And since writing the above I have indeed done just that – retained my affinity for those who say Garnier is an author to read – by picking up several others. I would suggest the best place to start is either with Boxes, or perhaps The Islanders, which takes its small-town feel to a place much closer to Paris than the norm, but gives us a snowbound, Christmastime-closing-set episode in Versailles, where a man finds trying to arrange his mother's funeral brings a lot more of the past back to life than he wishes. Moon in a Dead Eye lumps very few people into a failed gated community, and stirs up psychosis ahoy until things blackly bubble over, in a novel look at the old trope of the sunniest of places hiding the darkest of shadows. The Panda Theory is worth a look, too, as it shows the human condition in a black form once more, through a surprisingly charitable and friendly visitor to a small town; the nearest Garnier has got to disappointing me is with The A26, which while bearing strong similarities with McEwan's The Cement Garden, closes in in too insular a fashion to look at rarefied lives, and thus loses sight of anything like a message or bigger picture. But if you can imagine all the books the reviewing gods might let me peruse, and consider I have privately chosen to pick up a Garnier at a rate of one a month (with How's the Pain? lined up) you might see how strongly I feel an affinity for these rich, snappy and craftily varied bleak looks at rural French life. If I'd pick a lesser-known foreign author who deserved mucho praise and esteem, I would at this point in time definitely pick the late, great Pascal Garnier.

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