Benjamin Labatut ‘When We Cease to Understand the World’

Booker International Prize 2021: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“When We Cease to Understand the World”: In order of reading book number 2.


Decades before, Zyklon A—a precursor to the poison employed by the Nazis in their concentration camps—had been sprayed on California oranges, as a pesticide, and used to delouse the trains in which tens of thousands of Mexican immigrants hid when entering the United States. The wood of the train cars was stained a beautiful blue, the same colour that can be seen even today on certain bricks at Auschwitz; both hearken to cyanide’s authentic origins as a by-product isolated in 1782 from the first modern synthetic pigment, Prussian Blue.


In this rambling book, Benjamin Labatut brings us in just over 150 years on a rollercoaster ride in sciences from the more or less alchemist days of the mid to late eighteenth century where little more than four elements were known, and with accidental experiments leading to discoveries that soon escaped the hands and minds of the person that discovered them, through to God playing dice, and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principal.

Labatut chooses to take us from the accidental discovery of Prussian Blue by Jacob Diesbach, useful in dyeing and painting, through the accidental discovery of cyanide by Carl Wilhelm Scheele stirring a pot of Prussian Blue with a spoon coated in traces of sulphuric acid and of Scheele’s death from a painting pigment poisoning, a wonderful green colour used extensively but based on arsenic. And yes as in the opening quote, he links this through to Zyclon A and then Zyclon B.

But how does he get us to Heisenberg and Nils Bohr? Well the first man to derive the exact solution to Einstein’s theory of relativity and thus ultimately predict the existence of Black holes died as a result of being gassed in the first world war trenches.

I’ll stop here, an extremely interesting book, just too much information. Yes I’ve left out huge chunks of subject matter. It could make the excellent basis of a ludic documentary series but I wouldn’t propose it for this prize.

First Published in Spanish as “Un Verdor Terrible” by Anagrama in 2020.
Translated into English by Adrian Nathan West and published as “When We Cease to Understand the World” in 2021 by Pushkin Press.

David Diop ‘ At Night All Blood is Black’

Booker International Prize 2021: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“All Night All Blood is Black”: In order of reading book number 1.


Captain Armand says that you need to rest. The captain says that you are truely very brave but also very very tired. The captain says that he applauds your bravery, your very great bravery. The captain says that you will be awarded the Military Cross like me, oh, you have it already. The captain says that you’ll maybe get another. So yes I know I’ve understood that Captain Armand no longer wants me on the battlefield. Behind these words relayed by the elder, military cross, chocolate, Ibrahima Seck I knew, I understood that they’d had enough of my seven severed hands brought back fromm the battle, yes I understood, God’s truth, that on the battlefield they only want temporary madness, mad from anger, mad from suffering, raging mad, but temporary, not continuously mad.


David Diop’s story of African soldiers in the first world war, bringing “savagery”to a “civilised” war as Alfa Ndiaye, the narrator theorises, the enemy over there is particularly afraid of the African’s savagery as his french commanders tell him proudly until he becomes really savage. You can go too far, he learns, in this “civilised” war, as illustrated in the opening quote.

David Diop tells us of Alfa Ndiaye, a Senagaleese soldier fighting in the trenches for France and of his more-than-brother, Mademba Diop who dies in no man’s land next to Alfa with his insides on the outside, begging Alfa to finish him but Alfa can’t. So begins this story of Africans in the trenches, with the author telling the story through Alfa who is haunted and influenced by Mademba, David Diop’s namesake. Mademba is killed in noman’s land by an enemy from across the lines who pretending to be dead suddenly pounces and kills him. Alfa takes this up as a modus operandi, lying in wait after the battle, slowly killing stragglers, severing a hand from each victim and bringing them back as trophies. We slowly learn of Alfa’s life in Africa and his relationship to Mademba and by the end of the book we no longer know which of the two of them remains in Alfa’s body, as Alfa says:


I loved Mademba, my more-than-brother. God’s truth I loved him so much, I was sonafraid he would die, I so wanted us to return together safe and sound to Gandiol that I would do anything to keep him alive.


This winner of the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens has got to be one of my favourites, a fresh view on the madness of war.

First Published in French as “Frère d’âme” in 2018 by Le Seuil.
*** My translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

le Capitaine Armand a dit que tu devais te reposer. Le capitaine dit que tu etais vraiment très brave mais très très fatigué aussi. Le capitaine a dit qu’il salue ton courage ton très très grand courage. Le capitaine a dit que tu allais avoir la croix de guerre comme moi, ah tu l’as deja. Le capitaine a dit que tu allais en avoir peut-être une autre. Alors oui je sais, j’ai compis que le capitaine Armand ne voulait plus de moi sur le champ de bataille. Derriere les mots rapportés par l’ainé, croix de guerre, chocolat, Ibrahima Seck j’ai su, j’ai compris qu’on en avait assez de mes sept mains tranchées rapportées chez nous, oui j’ai compris par la verité de dieux que sur le champ de battaille qu’on ne veut que de la follie passagère, des fous de rage, des fous de douleur, des fous furieux, mais temporaire, pas de fou en continue.

J’aimais Mademba mon plus-que frère. Par la verite de Dieux je l’aimais tellement, j’avais tellement peur qu’il meurt, je souhaitais tellement que nous rentrions sain et sauf tous les deux à Gandiol, j’étais prêt a tout pour qu’il reste en vie.

The Booker International…Sort of Confinement Issue

And the Winner is:

Blocked at home once more…Sort of…not really, lockdown but no checks and no one takes any notice here. So another opportunity to beat the jury!

I’ll read the six shortlisted novels, write articles and debate extensively with myself.


Before announcing the definite winner, of course that’s if the jury doesn’t get it wrong again this year


Hervé Le Tellier ‘Toutes les familles heureuses’


It was at roughly the same age that, during a digression in an adult conversation that my mother had had an abortion a few years before in Switzerland..my mother…explained to me several times: she had done it “for me” . Guy would of course have grown attached to “his child” and neglected me, or even grown to dislike me. I found out, thanks to her, that I was responsible for the death of a little brother or sister and that I couldn’t trust dad.***


Hervé Le Tellier, The 2020 Prix Goncourt, tells us in this his 2017 book of his background, of his un-loving un-caring family that he knew he needed to flee, even from a young age to survive, unlike Sarah Chiche this is no psychoanalysis although his mother lies at the centre of the story and her relationship with firstly his always absent father who didn’t give him his name and his stepfather, who had never wanted him. An example of his mother’s lack of consequence is given in the opening quote.

Now that all of the protagonists of the book are dead, except for his mother, suffering from Altzheimer’s, He delivers this compact story on the unhappiness of his family, rendered possible by not facing the facts:


I understood quite quickly that you couldn’t believe anything my mother said. It’s not that she particularly liked lying, it’s just that admitting the truth was too much for her.***


A short, personal well written book which I enjoyed.

First Published in French as “Toutes le familles heureuses” by JC Lattès in 2017
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

C’est à peu près au même âge que j’appris, au détour d’un conversation d’adultes, que ma mère avait avorté quelques années plus tôt en Suisse….ma mère…me l’expliqua bien plusieurs fois: elle l’avait fait “pour moi”. Guy se serait évidemment attaché à “son enfant” et il m’aurait délaissé, voir pris en grippe. Je sus ainsi grâce à elle que j’étais responsable de la mort d’un petit frère ou d’une petite sœur et qu’il fallait aussi me méfier de papa.

Je compris pourtant vite qu’il était difficile d’accorder le moindre crédit à ce que ma mère racontait. Ce n’était pas qu’elle aimait particulièrement mentir, mais accepter la vérité exigeait trop d’elle.

Sarah Chiche ‘Saturne’




Paris, 19th June 1975

Madame, Miss,…

What can be expected,img_0167-1 you’re beyond redemption. You’ve a dark heart, vicious like a snake disguised as a deer. In despite of whatever my old father may think, that you’ve tricked with your charm as you’ve tricked so many others, me, I can find no excuse for you. No. You’re no more than a mistress in the hands of a boy who’ll never be a man. I’m Harry’s brother. And in the name of my family, of the state in which you’ve left my brother, I swear to you: you will never be a part of our family. We will never welcome you again: not tomorrow, nor thereafter.

AC***


Sarah Chiche’s “The Obscure” was a book that spoke of her maternal family and the strains linked to the Shoah, Sarah is a Psychoanalyst and this book treats the point of encounter between her father’s family, partially imagined as she was not born for most of it and her own life, which she analyses here.

Sarah Chiche’s father’s family had built up a prosperous clinic in Algeria before the war of independence and were forced to flee with nothing, nothing is of course relative and her grandfather was able to build up a very lucrative clinic business in France. During these early years, the two sons, Harry, Sarah’s father and his older brother, Armand her uncle, were sent away to boarding school together. Already at this young age their characters are there to be seen. Armand full of drive, a success in company and Harry a dreamer.

The family was turned in on itself following their uprooting, the sons would inherit the father’s clinics and all would be well, but then Harry met Eve, herself trying to survive a complicated family situation, with little or no money and making men pay for her situation. Harry is totally in love with her but when his brother finds out Eve is not particularly faithful to his brother he takes things into his own hands and sends her the letter of the opening quote.

Soon after, Eve and Harry marry in private and when Eve is just 15 months old, in 1974, the year of the launch of Voyager, her father dies of leukemia. And so begins the second part of the book, how, are these events re-woken twenty six years later causing her breakdown. Sarah has cut of her ties with her paternal family (soured by her mother’s stories of them) and with her mother when her grandmother dies, causing her to question events:


Later, I was told that he went without suffering. I was told that he wanted to go. I was told that he was happy. When I found the strength to press for details, I was finally told that it happened like this: he fought to breathe. He was choking. He choked. It was an awful noise. ***


Sarah, fragile, is discovered living alone in a frightening state, unable to come to terms with the grief of her father’s death from all that time ago. And to be saved by the very people she no longer wanted to see:


The whiteness of the clinics where the mother, terrorised by what had happened to her own mother, begged them not to lock up her child. The negotiations for home care. The torture of guilt looking around at the habitual horror of the furniture. The shame of becoming dependent on this mother, this step-father from which she had tried to escape and who now are the only ones she can count on. ***


An introspective book, which has had a certain success, I wouldn’t go out of my way to read it.

First Published in French as “Saturne” by Sarah Chiche and published by Le Seuil in 2020
*** my translation

The quote as read in French before translation

Paris, le 19 juin 1975

Madame, Mademoiselle,…!!!
Que voulez-vous, vous êtes irrécupérable. Vous avez l’âme noire, vicieuse, d’un serpent peinturluré en biche. Quoi que puisse en penser mon vieux père, que vous avez berner par vos charmes, comme vous en berner tanr d’autres, moi, je ne vous trouve aucune excuse. non. Vous n’êtes qu’une concubine entre les mains d’un garçon qui ne sera jamais un homme. Je suis le frère de Harry. Et au nom des miens, au nom de l’état dans lequel vous avez mis mon frère, fe vous le jure: vous ne ferez jamais partie de notre famille. Nous ne vous recevrons plus: ni demain, ni les autres jours.

AC

plus tard, on m’a dit qu’il était parti sans souffrir. On m’a dit qu’il le voulait. on m’a dit qu’il était heureux. Quand j’ai trouvé la force de demander des précisions, on a fini par me dire que cela s’était passé à peu près ainsi: il luttait pour respirer. Il s’étouffa. Il étouffait. c’était un bruit abominable.

La blancheur des cliniques où la mère, terrorisée par ce qui est arrivé à sa propre mère, supplie qu’on n’enferme pas son enfant. La negotiation pour les soins à domicile. La torture de la culpabilité quand on contemple autour de soi l’horreur familière des meubles. La honte d’être redevenue dépendante de cette mère et de ce beau-père qu’on avait voulu fuir et qui sont désormais les seuls sur qui compter.

Kazuo Ishiguro ‘KLARA and THE SUN’


‘He’s a B2,’ Manager said. ‘Third series. For the right child, Rex will make a perfect companion. In particular, I feel he’ll encourage a conscientious and studious attitude in a young person.’
‘Well this young lady here could certainly do with that.’
‘Oh, Mother, he’s perfect.’ Then the mother said: ‘B2, third series. The ones with the solar absorption problems, right?’
She said it just like that, in front of Rex, her smile still on her face. Rex kept smiling too, but the child looked baffled and glanced from Rex to her mother.
‘It’s true,’ Manager said, ‘that the third series had a few minor issues at the start. But those reports were greatly exaggerated. In environments with normal levels of light, there’s no problem whatsoever.’
‘I’ve heard solar malabsorption can lead to further problems,’ the mother said. ‘Even behavioral ones.’


Ishiguro’s Klara is set some time in the not too distant future and lets us compare two feats of engineering, Klara, an AF, an Artificial Friend, developed to be a friend for teenagers and the teenager in question, Josie. Josie who is “lifted”, that is to say as we learn near the middle of the book, genetically engineered, a choice her richer parents were able to make because if you’re not “lifted” you have no real chance of an education.

The story is told by Klara, from the beginning in the shop waiting to be bought, where we learn through Klara of her observations and deductions, Klara is a B2 as illustrated in the opening quote and of course has a very particular relationship with the sun which gives her all of her “nourishment”. Whilst in the shop window, Klara made two observations which were to form her vision of the world, firstly a machine working in the street outside which giving of large amounts of smoke temporarily hides the sun and secondly a drunk passed out on the street who comes around when the sun shines strongly on him.

Soon after being bought by Josie, Klara learns that Josie is very ill and may die (genetic engineering seems to be a risky business, Josie had had a sister that had died at her age and as we learn, if they manage to live through this age then they’ll be ok). So she tries to reason how to save Josie and thinks back to her earlier experience:


I thought too about the time the sun had given his special nourishment to beggar man and his dog and considered the important differences between his circumstances and Josie’s. For one thing many passers by had known beggar man and when he’d become weak he had done so on a busy street visible to taxi drivers and runners, any of these people might have drawn the sun’s attention to his condition and that of his dog. Even more significantly I remembered what had been happening not long before the sun had given his special nourishment to beggar man, the Cootings Machine had been making its awful pollution.


We learn that people think of AFs as having superstitions but we see through Klara that a partial understanding of the world around you can lead to this. Can the sun help Josie? Through Klara’s observations we learn of the toll of human suffering the technology brings, of people losing their jobs, of communities fighting back. More directly, firstly we see in the shop the differences between the AFs, each with their own personality and then hear Josie’s father wonder about the ironing out of differences between the lifted children:


Mr Paul is an expert engineer I said turning to face him, I was hoping he’d be able to think of something, but the father kept gazing through the windshield at the yard I couldn’t explain it to mosey earlier in the diner, I couldn’t explain why I hate Kapaldi so much, why I can’t bring myself to be civil towards him but I’d like to try and explain it to you Klara if you don’t mind, his switch of subject was highly unwelcome but anxious not to lose his goodwill I said nothing and waited I think I hate Kapaldi because deep down I suspect he may be right that what he claims is true that science has now proved beyond doubt that there is nothing so unique about my daughter, nothing there our modern tools can’t excavate, copy, transfer, that people have been living with one another for all this time, centuries loving and hating each other and all on a mistaken premise, a kind of superstition we kept going while we didn’t know better, that’s how Kapaldi sees it and there’s a part of me that fears he’s right.


Josie’s mother would like Klara to learn to be Josie, to replace her for a while if she were to die, to ease the pain. It of course never gets to this and as the book comes to an end, and Klara to the end of her useful life, her observations as to what makes a human individual and why she would not have been able to replace Josie ring true. Finally a whole AF life, for an exceptional AF to really understand humans.

A most enjoyable book well worth reading.

First Published in English as “KLARA and THE SUN” in 2021 by Faber & Faber.

Jeanine Cummins ‘American Dirt’


Luca starts to understand that this is the one thing that all migrants have in common, this is the solidarity that exists among them, though they all come from different places and different circumstances some urban, some rural, some middle class, some poor, some well educated some illiterate, Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Mexican, Indian, each of them carry some story of suffering on top of that train and into El Norte beyond. Some like Rebecca share their stories carefully selectively finding a faithful ear and then chanting their words like prayers, other migrants are like blown open grenades telling their anguish compulsively to everyone they meet dispensing their pain like shrapnel so that one day they might wake to find their burdens have grown lighter. Luca wonders what it would be like to blow up like that, nut for now he remains undetonated.


As the book opens, Lydia owns a bookshop in Acapulco and the world is well, she lives with her husband Sebastián, a journalist and her son Luca and her world ends at a family barbecue when gunmen enter her garden and kill all thirteen of her family members present except her and Luca who hide in the shower.

Sure violence is creeping into Acapulco with the drugs but it’s mostly invisible, happens to others then one evening Lydia learns that the reclusive boss of the cartel that has taken over Acapulco, that Sébastián will reveal in tomorrow’s newspaper is a customer she knows who comes to her shop with a bodyguard and who buys poems.

She knows she must run, fast and far but the cartel’s influence is far reaching, you can’t travel on a road between towns without them finding you, any youth could be working for them, all they need is a smart phone and a gun. We follow Lydia and Luca as the travel with other migrants on the roof of “La Bestia”, the freight train and the other migrants they meet, of the sisters Rebecca and the too beautiful Soledad, yes, to be too beautiful is no good thing, who teach them how to join the train:


The wind fuzzes through Luca’s hair as the noise of the train grows closer, the booming clatter and reverberation of those monster wheels hauling themselves along the metal of the track. The very loudness of that noise seems designed as a warning that enters through your ears but lodges in your sternum stay away stay away stay away don’t be crazy don’t be crazy don’t be crazy ..he sees it emerge from beneath his feet mammy peers over the edge of a low guard rail just as the train pulls itself into view it’s good Rebecca smiles at them, nice and slow. Ready, Soledad says. her little sister nods Lydia’s face grim whilst she studies the stretch of the train….Soledad tosses her pack and then follows it with one graceful, chaotic, suicidal lurch she moves her body from the fixed to the moving she drops, Lydia can’t tell how far it is six feet, ten and then the girl is instantly receding, her form growing smaller as she moves away with the train.


Not many of the hopeful migrants they meet actualy make it, far less have any money left on arrival and if they think the cartel only control the roads the they don’t know the power of corruption, but they do. And throughout all this the young boy Luca is working through the grief of losing his father, his abuelo and his abuela, aunts uncles and cousins whilst fighting to stay alive on this long journey:


Luca is exhausted, there’s a tug of war in his heart already between wanting to remember and needing to forget in the months to come Luca will sometimes wish he hadn’t squandered these early days of his grief…because as the forgetting part takes anchor and stays it’ll feel like a treachery.


No one makes this journey for fun, they are all fleeing from something, some are able to talk about their experiences, with difficulty to a chosen trusted person and others, well the are just time bombs waiting to explode. Jeannine Cummins takes us through despair, recovery of sorts and a raw energy to survive. Makes me think of a film I’ve seen “The Golden Dream

First Published in English as “American Dirt” in 2020 by Tinder Press.

Emily St. John Mandel ‘The Glass Hotel’


In their first winter together they flew south to a party at a private club in Miami Beach, Jonathan seemed to belong to an extraordinary number of clubs. “It’s an expensive hobby,” he told Vincent “but I’ve always had a weakness for places where it seems like time slows down.” Yet another clue that Vincent felt she should have picked up, why exactly did he want time to slow down? Was there something in that statement besides a general awareness of mortality some other inevitability that he felt was rushing towards him?


Who is the New York Financier, Jonathan Alkaitis, if you remember Madoff then you’re sort of getting there. This book is about the people around Alkaitis when the stock market takes a serious tumble in 2008 and anyone running a Ponzi scheme is going to be collateral damage. This novel isn’t so much about the central figure, but about the people around him, about Vincent, who was brought up in a remote area on Vancouver Island, one road with no roads in and no roads out, accessible only by boat. One morning whilst Vincent is just a child, her mother goes out in the kayak and never comes home, this event shapes her and her future. Vincent, beautiful Vincent back home on Vancouver island is working in a bar in the hotel Caiette, owned by Alkaitis, and as he can, he just whisks her off to live with himself. But why would a super rich man do this:


I want you close said Jonathan at the beginning….While he didn’t want to marry Vincent he did feel that wedding rings created an impression of stability, in my line of work he said managing other people’s money, steadiness is everything, if I take you out to dinner with clients it’s better for you to be a beautiful young wife than a beautiful young girlfriend. Does Claire know we’re not married?…Only two people in the world know that, you and me….But what kind of man lies to his daughter about being married? There were aspects of the fairy tale that Vincent was careful not to think about too much at the time and later her memories of those years had an abstracted quality as if she stepped temporarily outside of herself.


Does Vincent know anything about Alkaitis’s true business? Well the opening quote tells us that maybe she should have. Alkaitis knows his run cannot go on forever but his need for investors means that he takes down everyone and anyone around him, even people he is fond of invest with him and some lose everything they own. Leon Prevant, a shipping executive is one, he is unfortunate enough to be on holiday in the hotel Caiette when Alkaidis is there and we understand something of his charisma as he has insights into what Leon must be thinking because of his work. Prevant invests his life’s savings, including his pension with Jonanthan and we then follow Leon’s descent after the collapse. Vincent herself, though, just disappears and as a coincidence finds herself working on one of the ships Prevant used to manage. How does it finish? Well remember how it started when Vincent was a young girl?


In memory I’m back at the La Vu D’Or in the interior of gold and red listening to my least favourite of Jonathan’s investors, talk about a singer, no not a singer a Ponzi scheme, “Couldn’t recognise an opportunity,” Lenny Xavier said talking about the singer “whereas me when I met your husband, when I figured out how his fund worked, that right there was an opportunity and I seized it.” I watched Jonathan’s look of alarm, the way he leaned forward as he spoke, his obvious desperation to stop Lenny from talking. “Let’s not bore our lovely wives with investment talk” and Lenny smirked as he raised his glass “my investment performed better than I could ever have imagined”, he knew but of course I knew too, if not the details of the scheme then the fact that there was a scheme because I’d been pretending to be Jonathan’s wife for months by then, it was just that I’d chosen not to understand.


St John Mandel, a National Book Award for Fiction nominee and an Arthur C Clarke award winner has a smooth floating voice in this novel which slowly pulls you in.

First Published in English as “The Glass Hotel” in 2020 by Picador.

Alice Zeniter ‘Comme un empire dans un empire’


Traders now buy zero-days on the market and companies sell them on, all in total secrecy. As Antoine didn’t understand the word, L explained that a zero-day was an error in a program that nobody had yet found and for which as a consequence, there was no patch…..to sum up, said L, capitalism has taken over coding.***


Alice Zeniter’s latest novel covers the world of today through two protagonists whose lives meet and their meeting then transform them. The first is Antoine, a backroom boy and speech writer for a socialist member of parliament in these post-socialist days where the Socialist Party no longer represents even a moderate portion of the electorate and Antoine, all too aware of this, just doesn’t know what to do:


The party is a dead animal in whose stomach you can still shelter but it is now beginning to smell and to become cold. It makes no sense to spend your whole life within it today. That way of shaping politics is dead and I know no other. I don’t know what to do.***


And L, who lived through the early period of the internet hackers, was part of Anonymous and saw the system fight back, break some and then jail the leaders. L lives in two worlds, the Within and the Flesh-world; she prefers the Within, the virtual. The experience with the Anons and the constant fear has kept her from attacking large corporate entities but she has her enemies, the people she defends others against, the abusers of women. When her live in boyfriend/hacker is arrested early one morning, for attacking a large corporate entity her world starts to fall apart.

L begins to see people following her. Are these people linked to her Elias her boyfriend or to the women haters she has been fighting for her female customers, or is it all in her head? She no longer knows. Antoine, whom she has met at a party she did not mean to attend, decides to save her and arranges for her to leave Paris and live with a friend of his in a sort of commune in a caravan with other missfits behind the friend’s farmhouse in Brittany. So opens a phase of renewal, an appreciation of the world around her, the Flesh-world she despises up to this point.

Who do these two people become, does L leave her previous life, or at least put it in perspective, become less paranoid? Does Antoine continue to work for an ideal, a party, an elected representative of the people he no longer believes in? Or does their meeting make them both better, stronger? Do you believe in fairy tails? Well read this book. As usual Zeniter doesn’t dissapoint.

First Published in French as “Comme un empire dans un empire” in 2020 by Flammarion.*** My translation

Des courtiers achetaient désormais à la bourse des zero-days et des firmes les revendaient, le tout dans le plus grand secret. Comme Antoine ne comprenait pas le mot, L expliqua qu’un zero-day était un défaut dans un logiciel que personne n’avait encore décelé et pour lequel, par conséquent, il n’existait aucun correctif……Pour résumer, dit L, le capitalisme s’était emparé du codage.

Le parti est un animal crevé dans le ventre duquel on s’abrite encore mais ça commence à puer et à refroidir. Ça n’a plus aucun sens de passer une vie entière à l’intérieur aujourd’hui. Cette façon de faire de la politique est morte et je n’en connais pas d’autre. Je ne sais pas quoi faire.

Gabrielle Massat ‘The Taste of My Mother’s Lipstick’

Quai du Polar 2021: Books shortlisted for the readers prize, Number 3

Gabrielle Massat: Le goût du rouge à lèvre de ma mère (Éditions DU MASQUE)


Are you sure you want to come in? I asked as my dog barked a second time.
The two cops hesitated. Then the woman decided, sounding as smooth as chilli on your privates:
Either that or we’re taking you in.
You don’t have the right.
With a suspect in a murder case we have all the rights. Let us come in.
I tied Angus to the cupboard door dodging his efforts to lick me. He wined tragically.
Oh, I said, I didn’t kill anyone.
Jones, he’s blind, she sounded put out when she realised.
It can’t be him, how could he have managed a perfect intravenous injection? Hell we’ve just driven 800 kilometres to arrest a suspect and he’s blind!***


In this third book read for the readers’ Gabrielle Massat takes us to San Francisco and to a world she has created around organised prostitution. Cyrus, who has been living from petty crime in San Diego, has his own routines with a private trainer and friends is unexpectedly visited at home by the police of the SFPD at his home as illustrated in the opening paragraph. Yes they quickly learn that their suspect Cyrus Colfer is blind and he learns that the murdered man, Earl Montgomery had been looking for him.

Thus begins the story as Cyrus moves back to San Francisco to try to learn what Montgomery had wanted to tell him about his mother’s death years earlier as he was still a child, that lead to his leaving San Francisco. Cyrus often unerestimated as a blind man, visits old members of the Clan that had employed his mother to try to solve the mystery of her death all those years before. He walks a thin line between working with the police and gaining the partial trust of the prostitution ring.

This was a long book, and pretty improbable, setting it in San Francisco seems to me to be an over complication, not one of my favourites for the prize.

First Published in French as “Le goût du rouge à lèvre de ma mère” in 2020 by Éditions DU MASQUE.
*** My translation

The quote as read in French before translation

Vous êtes vraiment sûrs de vouloir entrer? tentai-je alors que mon chien se fendait d’un second aboiement.
Les deux flics hésitèrent. Puis la femme trancha, d’un ton à peu près aussi agréable que du piment sur des parties génitales……
C’est ça ou on vous embarque.
Vous n’avez pas le droit.
Face à un suspect dans une affaire de meurtre, on a plein de droits. Laissez-nous entrer.
J’attachai Angus à la porte d’un placard en évitant ses coups de langue. Il lâcha un gémissement tragique.
Oh, fis-je, et je n’ai tué personne.
Jones, il est aveugle. La femme paraissait excédée par le constat.
Ça ne peut pas être lui, comment aurait-il pu réaliser une intraveineuse aussi parfaite? Bon sang, on vient de se taper huit cents kilomètres pour appréhender un suspect et il est aveugle!