CategoryZeniter Alice

The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter

It’s nine years since I last read Alice Zeniter: Take This Man was a compelling tale of a young Frenchwoman preparing to marry a friend in order to stop him being deported. The Art of Losing (translated from the French by Frank Wynne) is a longer novel on a bigger canvas: a saga tracing a line between the Algerian War of Independence and contemporary France, and inspired by the author’s own family history. 

Zeniter’s novel follows three generations, each with a different relationship to Algeria. In the 1950s, Ali is a landowner who fought on the side of France in World War Two. But when the National Liberation Front comes to his village, he is forced into a position of complicity, which leads him to a resettlement camp in France. 

Ali remains tied to Algeria, but his son Hamid turns his back on the country, determined to forge a life for himself in France. In turn, Hamid’s daughter Naïma has no knowledge of Algeria, nor the language to communicate with her grandparents. She has to make a journey of her own to uncover the past and make sense of her history. 

The Art of Losing highlights the personal histories that may fall through the gaps in official (colonial) accounts. It asks how people may carry on in the face of profound loss, and how they might regain what has been lost. 

Published by Picador.

Sunday Salon: Ten Love Stories

I’ve been reading Marry Me, Dan Rhodes’s new collection of flash fiction on the theme of marriage. This being Rhodes, all is not exactly sweetness and light: in many of these stories, a male narrator is treated shabbily by his female partner – or occasionally he’s the one behaving shabbily himself – in absurd and darkly amusing ways.

‘Is there someone else?’ asks one man as his wife leaves him. ‘No,’ she replies, ‘there isn’t. But I would really, really like there to be’. Another woman informs her husband that he’ll have to leave, then produces a catalogue and sells him pots and pans for his new home (‘I would give you a discount because I know you, but it’s early days and I’m sure you’ll understand that I’ve got to keep a firm grip on my finances now I’m a single gal’). And so on, and so on, with these wonderfully barbed and pithy lines.

But, just occasionally. there are touches of real romance, as with the couple who put the lump of charcoal he gave her in lieu of a diamond under their mattress in the hope that pressure may transform it. The result: ‘it never looks any different. I think we would be a bit disappointed if it ever did.’ Moments like this bring light to the book, which ends up being quite sweet, in its own deliciously sour way.

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As it’s nearly Valentine’s Day, I decided to go back through my blog archives and see how many love stories I’ve reviewed over the years. My instinct was that it wouldn’t be that many, but (allowing for my subjective interpretation), I’ve come up with a list of nine more books to add to the one above, which is more than I expected. Here they are – but I’m not necessarily promising happy endings…

Viola di Grado, 70% Acrylic 30% Wool (reviewed Jan 2013)

A girl struggling to move on from her father’s death may have found a way forward when she meets a local boy who teaches her Chinese – if she can let herself move forward, that is. I really enjoyed this book, but it might as much an anti-love story as a love story.

Evan Mandery, Q: a Love Story (reviewed Sept 2012)

This must be a love story, because it says so in the title, right? Well, maybe not, as its protagonist receives repeated visits from his future self, trying to persuade him to call off his relationships. But the ending is actually rather affecting.

Alice Zeniter, Take This Man (reviewed May 2012)

A fine portrait of complex circumstances, as a young French-Algerian woman prepares to marry her Malian childhood friend in a bit to prevent his deportation. Not so much a tale of ‘will they?won’t they?’ as ‘should they? shouldn’t they?’.

Henry Green, Loving (reviewed Jan 2012)

A tale of love and contested space in a wartime country house. It begins and ends with the words of a fairytale, but that kind of happiness is a long way from being guaranteed.

Robert Shearman, Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical (reviewed Aug 2011)

An excellent set of stories examining love in its various manifestations.

Alison MacLeod, Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction (reviewed July 2011)

Another fine set of stories about love.

Daniel Glattauer, Love Virtually (reviewed Feb 2011)

A novel told through two people’s emails; their correspondence becomes a form of courtship dance. Will they or won’t they? I don’t know without reading the sequel.

Priya Basil, The Obscure Logic of the Heart (reviewed June 2010)

A non-religious boy from a wealthy Kenyan Sikh family and a girl from a devout Birmingham Muslim family fall in love – and the complexities of their situation are very nicely delineated in the book.

Ronan O’Brien, Confessions of a Fallen Angel (reviewed Aug 2009)

The story of a young man who has apparently prophetic dreams of people’s deaths. I include it here for its wonderful portrait of falling in love twice, in two different ways – the dizzy rush of first love, and a slower flowering of affection later on in life.

Book notes: Darling, Zeniter, Meredith

Tom Darling, Summer (2012)

Tom Darling’s second novel, Summer, is the story of teenage Grace Hooper and her nine-year-old brother Billy, who arrive on their grandfather’s farm as orphans, their parents having been killed in an accident on holiday. School will not begin again for several months; until then, the children face a summer in an environment far removed from the London they know (underlining their sense of disorientation, it is never clear just where the farm is), with a relative who might as well be a stranger (and, indeed, is referred to almost exclusively in the book as ‘the old man’).

Summer is a quiet book that takes time to unfold, often telling its story in the gaps between scenes as well as within the scenes themselves. It moves between the present, the past, and the old man’s dreams, generally maintaining the same tone. These techniques can be effective; the children’s memories feel like the mirages they are, aspects of the present rather than an equal reality; and, though it’s evident from the grandfather’s bad dreams that something terrible has happened on the farm previously, the reader has to piece that together over time. However, the novel also feels a bit too diffuse; its different narrative components are not tied together as closely as they might be, and some key points may be lost amongst the whole.

But what Darling does particularly well in Summer is delineate the change in his protagonists. At first, it’s Billy who takes instinctively to the farm environment, and his grandfather is only too happy to accommodate his interest. Billy’s existence on the farm becomes almost elemental, and he spends more time in one of his outside hideaways than in the farmhouse. Grace, in contrast, is more cast adrift at first, but eventually comes to her own instinctive—though subtly different—understanding of her surroundings; her relationship with the farm is mediated through human contact more than is Billy’s, and the way she ultimately views the place is more ordered. It’s in details like this, and as a study of character, that Summer shines most strongly.

This review also appears on Fiction Uncovered.

Reviews elsewhere: Learn This Phrase; What Sarah Reads; Stevie Davies for the Guardian.

Alice Zeniter, Take This Man (2010/1)

Alice Zeniter was 23 when she published Jusque dans nos bras (now superbly translated from the French by Alison Anderson as Take This Man), and it really feels as though she has captured in it something of contemporary life for her generation. We meet Zeniter’s protagonist (also named Alice Zeniter) as she is about to marry her Malian childhood friend Amadou (‘Mad’) Traoré – a marriage brought about because it will prevent Mad from being deported under new immigration laws, despite his having lived in France most of his life. The novel’s chapters alternate between the lead-up to the wedding and Alice’s various encounters with racism.

Take This Man begins with a brilliant passage listing the touchstones of Alice’s generation as she sees them; it captures a mixture of optimism and anxiety which carries through to the main novel, where one senses that Alice is never quite sure whether marrying Mad is really the right thing to do (her first-person narration frequently lapses into addressing herself as ‘you’, emphasising that dislocation). Zeniter traces the complexities of Alice’s situation – her father may be from Algeria, but she appears white, and discovers that her experiences are not the same as Mad’s – and charts her growing political awareness, all in fizzing prose.

Review at Soifollowjulian.

Christopher Meredith, The Book of Idiots (2012)

Christopher Meredith’s first adult novel in fourteen years seems at first like a tapestry of the mundane. Interspersed with tales of boyhood games, Dean Lloyd narrates episodes from his adult life: interviewing candidates for a new position at his workplace; conversations at the swimming pool with Jeff, an old work colleague whose trunks keep threatening to disintegrate; a country walk with a friend named Wil Daniel, who tells Dean about a chance meeting at hospital with a woman he once knew, and its consequences. But there’s more going on than Dean – or the reader – may suspect.

Meredith has a particularly sharp ear for dialogue which feels like actual speech; and he creates a sharp portrait of thwarted potential – for example, Wil wonders what use his degree in English and history has really been; the answer, as far as the novel goes, is that he can play a guessing game with Dean about how different historical figures died.

I don’t think I managed to grasp everything Meredith was doing in The Book of Idiots; but the title intrigued me and, with the novel’s mentions of Ancient Greece, I looked up the original meaning of ‘idiot’ – which, as I understand it, was someone focused on the private sphere, on themselves. Viewing the book through this lens, I see characters with personal concerns which they don’t share, or don’t recognise in others – with tragic consequences. It’s the unseen things in The Book of Idiots which carry the greatest impact.

Review and interview by Gwen Davies in New Welsh Review.

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