Hélène Grémillon, The Confidant (2010/2)
Translated from the French by Alison Anderson

Hélène Grémillon’s first novel begins in Paris of 1975, where Camille Werner is sorting through the letters of condolence she has received on the death of her mother. One of the letters stands out: an account from someone named Louis of his childhood attraction to Annie, a girl from his village. Not knowing anyone named Louis or Annie, Camille thinks no more of this – until she starts receiving regular letters from Louis, telling more of his story.

Camille learns that Annie became friends with one Madame M., a rich young woman who came to the village with her husband, eventually (as Annie told Louis when they met again a few years later, during the war) agreeing to act as a surrogate mother for the infertile Madame M.  Events would subsequently take a tragic turn, and prove to be far more relevant to Camille than she had thought.

The full story of The Confidant takes shape only gradually, as we view the past from the perspectives of different characters. Madame M. kept Alice indoors during her pregnancy, and didn’t tell her about the Nazi invasion of France – but we’re forced to re-evaluate what we think of these individuals when we read Madame M.’s testimony. The final revelations come as Grémillon’s novel turns to poetry, as though prose is no longer sufficient (or can no longer be trusted) to tell this story. All in all, The Confidant is an intriguing piece of work.

Gavin Weston, Harmattan (2012)

The Harmattan is a trade wind that carries dust from the Sahara across West Africa; an analogous harshness and suffocation blows into the life of Gavin Weston’s protagonist, Haoua Boureima. Young Haoua lives in Watada, a village in the Republic of Niger, and dreams of becoming a teacher. But her family life is disrupted when her beloved soldier brother Abdelkrim visits and argues with their father over the latter’s gambling habit. Then Haoua’s mother is taken to hospital in the capital, and diagnosed with AIDS – and the girl’s world begins to fall apart, culminating in the marriage in which we see her (aged twelve) in the prologue.

Haoua’s tale is interspersed with the correspondence between her and the Boyds, the Irish family who sponsor her. Weston uses this device effectively: the naïve, childlike tone of the letters masks the difficulties of Haoua’s life; and the tribulations faced by the Boyd family are shown to be, not insignificant, but remote from Haoua’s concerns. A variation on the same technique works superbly towards novel’s end, as the Boyds’ father is thwarted in his search for news on Haoua.

Harmattan is a bleak book, there’s no denying that – it’s structured as a narrative of loss and possibilities closing off, rather than of escape and flourishing. But it also has a strong sense of forward motion that drives the narrative inexorably on towards its sombre conclusion.