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!

Literary Quotes (1) Tournier

To be found in the smallest room in the house

1. Michel Tournier

Café amer au point de n’être plus buvable. Un grand brame. Deux grands brames. Aucun soulagement. La seule consolation de la matinée est d’ordre fécale. Je fais inopinément et sans la moindre bavure un étron superbe, si long qu’il faut qu’il s’incurve à ses extrémités pour tenir dans la cuvette. Je regarde attendri ce beau poupon dodu de limon vivant que je viens d’enfanter et je reprends goût à la vie.
La constipation est une source majeure de morosité. Comme je comprends le Grand Siècle avec sa manie de clystères et de purges! Ce dont l’homme prend le plus mal son parti, c’est d’être un sac d’excréments à deux pattes. À cela seule une défécation heureuse, abondante et régulière pourrait remédier, mais combien chichement cette faveur nous est concédée
 
 
.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 

Hervé Le Tellier ‘The Anomaly’


Mayday received Air France 006. Can you confirm the transponder code 7700?
The voice, in which a clear incomprehension can be heard, repeats:
Air France from Kennedy Approach, confirm the transponder is on 7700.
You did say Air France 006?
Affirmitive, Air France 006 mayday. I confirm the transponder is on 7700, we’ve come through a huge hail cloud, the windshield is cracked, the radome is probably damaged….
Air France 006 mayday, from Kennedy Approach. This is Air Traffic Control, what is your captain’s name please?
Markle sits there mouth wide open. No controler in his whole career has ever asked him a pilot’s name.***


This Goncourt winning book asks the question, if I was faced with myself how would I react? Would I welcome my other self ? Would I try to dominate my other self? Or would I try to annihilate my other self?

Air France 006, piloted by captain Markle on one of his last flights before retirement, comes through a momentous storm and carries out an emergency landing on the 10th March 2021. As the book slowly develops we zoom in on a number of people whose only link was to have been on this flight. There is Blake, a meticulous and successful french contract killer. There is Lucie Bogaert a successful film editor who has been slowly courted by the older architect, André, but who after her trip to New York becomes disillusioned with André, at the end of this chapter the police come to fetch her.

There are a number of other characters, notably Victor Miesel an unknown writer who on his return from New York writes a hugely successful book called ‘The Anomaly’ and Fehmi Ahmed Kaduna, alias Slimboy a little known rapper from Lagos who writes a world wide hit, ‘Yaba Girls’ on his return from New York.

And then in June, as illustrated in the opening quote, Air france 006 piloted by captain Markle appears out of nowhere in a clear sky, the same pilot, the same plane and the same passengers, Markle is passed from Air Traffic Control to Special operations FAA then to NORAD and is guided to a secret airforce base for landing.

The strength of the book is not to deal with how or why but to follow the people as they are prepared for and then brought to meet their other selves, and so yes, how will they react? What will they do? For instance Slimboy June hasn’t known the success of Slimboy March. Victor Miesel hasn’t written a successful book and Lucie June is still in love with André. And what about Blake?

This highly enjoyable book explores the worlds of a dozen or so passengers on this flight. And how was the US able to react so quickly when Air France 006 June appeared and what is the protocol 42?

First Published in French as “L’Anomalie” by Gallimard in 2020
*** my translation

The quote as read in French before translation

Mayday reçu Air France 006. Pouvez-vous confirmer le code transpondeur 7700?
La voix, où l’on décèle une profonde incompréhension, répète:
Air France de Kennedy Approach, confirmez le transpondeur sur 7700. Vous dites bien Air France 006?
Affirme, Air France 006 mayday. Je confirme transpondeur sur 7700, nous avons traversé un gros nuage de grêle, le pare-brise est fissuré, le radôme est sûrement défoncé….
Air France 006 mayday, de Kennedy Approach. Ici Air Traffic Control, quel est le nom du commandant du bord, s’il vous plaît?
Markle reste bouche bée. Jamais de toute sa carrière aucun contrôleur ne lui a demandé le nom d’un pilote.

Brandon Taylor ‘Real Life’

“Booker Prize 2020: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“Real Life”: In order of reading book number 5.

In order to follow this event, I am writing articles on all six of the short listed books and will propose my winner before the official announcement.
Visit the official site for more details: Booker Prize 2020


Wallace stood on an upper platform looking down into the scrum, trying to find his particular group of white people, thinking also that it was still possible to turn back, that he could go home and get on with his evening.


Brandon Taylor takes us to a Midwest university where the research assistants are working hard for the opportunity of a career and thus life in academia. Taylor concentrates on a group of young researchers arrived at the same time. There was Miller, a tall lad from Indiana, Cole and his partner from the real world Vincent, Yngve whose father was a surgeon and whose mother taught history at a liberal arts college. And then there was Wallace, the book is really about Wallace who is up from Alabama and black, the opening quote telling us how he sees his friends.

This is yet another book in the selection with serious problems going forward from parent son relationships, Wallace whose mother drank weak beer all day because of her diabetes and whose father leaves them and somehow manages by this to define Wallace’s view of the world:


When I went to middle school my dad moved out of our house he says, he moved up the road into this other house my brother’s dad had built. It used to be an art gallery or something, a house first then an art gallery and then a house again, anyway my dad moved into it and he lived there, I wasn’t allowed to visit . He said he did’t want to see us any more. I asked him why and he said it didn’t matter why, it just was. He didn’t want to see us, me, anymore. Wallace is circling the rim of this old bitterness, can hear his dad’s voice rising up out of the past, that raspy laugh. He shook his head and smiled at Wallace put his hand on Wallace’s shoulder, they were almost equal height then, his fingers bony and knobby. He simply said I don’t want you here and that was it, Wallace was not granted an explanation for the break, for the severing of his family that left him in the house with his mother and his brother. He learned then that somethings have no reason that no matter how he feels he isn’t entitled to an answer from the world.


So, having just watched a documentary on Toni Morrison, I recognise a certain number of the messages in her writing here. Choosing to set the story in an almost exclusively white Midwest university lets Brandon Taylor give full rein to Wallaces feeling of estrangement in his own country, to casual racism and general lack of support for him from his “friends”. As Wallace has had difficulties with his studies, having to work really hard to catch up with the others from a lower starting knowledge base, he understands that in the eyes of some, this was not his initial dissadvantage and that the real dissadvantage will never go away. The smooth talking and racist Romain explains this to him against the background of non intervention from the others:


His deficiencies ….What Romain is referring to is instead a deficiency of whiteness a lack of some requisite saneness, this deficiency cannot be overcome the fact is no matter how hard he tries or how much he learns or how many skills he masters, he will always be provisional in the eyes of these people. No matter how they might be fond of him or gentle with him. “Did I hurt your feelings” Romain asks “I just want to be clear, I think you should stay, you owe the department that much don’t you agree?”
“I don’t have anything to say to that Romain”, Wallace says smiling. To keep his hands from shaking he clenches his fists until his knuckles turn to white ridges of pressure.
“Well think about it.” he says.
“I will thanks”. Emma puts her head on Wallace’s shoulder but she won’t say anything either, can’t bring herself to, no one does, no one ever does. Silence is their way of getting by because if they are silent long enough then this moment of minor discomfort will pass for them, will fold down into the landscape of the evening as if it had never happened. Only Wallace will remember it, that’s the frustrating part.


Amid Wallace’s difficulties with his supervisor who wants him to really consider what he wants to do with his life and his homosexual relationship with Miller where they come close to getting to know something about each other and the sub-surface violence of Miller scares him, he comes to realise that “Perhaps friendship is really nothing but controlled cruelty, maybe that’s all they are doing, lacerating each other and expecting kindness back.” And then there is this quote, the very essence of the book, which explains that Wallace just wants to be noticed and to be looked at as a person with this whole book explaining the impossibility of this simple wish:


Are you on that app?
Which app?
You know the one. Cole flushes as he says this looking away to the trees and to the long winding sidewalk that slopes down to the lake.
The gay one you mean?
That’s it yeah.
Oh yeah, I guess, sometimes.
Wallace deleted the app some weeks ago but this feels like a minor point Cole has always made sure to mention that he is not on the app and that he is relieved to have found Vincent before the advent of such technology, geo-location, finding the nearest queers for fucking or whatever. Wallace always has to keep himself from saying that Cole would have done well on the app he is tall and good looking in an average sort of way he is funny and quippy, gentle. He is also white which is never a disadvantage with gay men but Wallace says none of these things because to say them would disrupt Cole’s view of the average gay man as shallow and kind of stupid, they are shallow and kind of stupid but no more than any other group. Wallace only deleted the app because he had grown tired of watching himself be invisible to them, of the gathering silence in his inbox he wasn’t looking anyway but at the same time he wanted to be looked at the same as any one else.


This is a slow, persistant book, introspective about Wallace. What do you think he would/should do with his life from here?

First Published in English as “Real Life” by Daunt Books in 2020