The Times: The Best of February
Summer of Reckoning by Marion Brunet, trans. Katherine Gregor
Céline and Johanna are adolescent sisters who live in the Luberon. The striking first page — on which their father, a hulking Spanish builder, tries to slap out of Céline the name of the man who impregnated her — is only a taste of the violence to come. Their embittered mother, Séverine, who gave birth to them when still in her teens, is no help at all. Summer of Reckoning is a powerful portrait of disaffected youth, stunted lives and insidious racism. It portrays a Provence that few tourists glimpse and will have its expats wondering just what lies beneath the swimming pool. Marion Brunet reminds us that noir is a French word; that “life’s not like a fairytale for silly girls. Life hurts.” This is the first of her award-winning books to be translated into English. More, please, au plus vite!
Winner of the 2018 Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, Marion Brunet’s Summer of Reckoning (translated by Katherine Gregor, Bitter Lemon, £8.99) is set in a Provence that’s a world away from the chattering classes’ holiday paradise, where poverty, boredom and casual racism are the prevailing forces. Sixteen-year-old Céline is pregnant and, despite violence from her alcoholic father Manuel, refuses to divulge the name of the man responsible. Mother Severine is dismayed at the prospect of grandmotherhood at 34; Céline’s teachers and classmates are judgmental, and her only ally is her 15-year-old sister Jo, who dreams of escape. In need of a scapegoat, Manuel, who “longs to fight – constantly and with everybody”, lights on the girls’ friend Saïd, son of Moroccan immigrants. There’s an appalling, slow-motion car crash inevitability to this concise and beautifully written novel, not only about the disastrous consequences of Manuel’s idée fixe, but also about the identity of the real father and the guilt and shame that follow.
CrimeTime: Billed as a police or detective story, this prize-winning French novel is really a slow-burn thriller, a social-realist portrayal of embittered life among hard-scrabble minimal-income locals and semi-settled immigrants, all living within walking distance of the luxurious villas occupied part-time by the holidaying wealthy. Though the locals resent these rich intruders they resent each other more.
A girl falls pregnant, is beaten by her brutal father and, when she refuses to say who made her pregnant, he seeks revenge on the man he (wrongly, of course) assumes to be the perpetrator. Menace, brutality and ignorance swamp the sharper aspirations of the few who seek to better themselves. In an area where physical strength always wins, surely the result must be inevitable?
Winner of the Grand Prix de Littérature policière, 2018.
French author Brunet makes her English-language debut with a smoldering psychological thriller that’s well written but covers familiar ground. In a town in the south of France, 16-year-old Céline is pregnant. Her abusive and alcoholic father, Manuel, can’t get her to divulge the name of her lover; her mother, Séverine, remains bitter over getting pregnant as a teen herself, and shows little sympathy toward her daughter; and Céline’s 15-year-old sister, Jo, doesn’t even understand why her sister is that interested in sex. As Manuel’s desire for information increases, he focuses his rage on Saïd, a friend of the girls and one of the few non-European people in town. Violence ensues. Though the turmoil Céline and her family go through is often tense, some readers may be uncomfortable that Céline is often described in terms that border on the fetishistic (“her denim shorts cut so high the fold between her buttocks and thighs opened and closed with every step she took”). Brunet has a lot to say about sex and society, but isn’t necessarily saying anything new. (Apr.)
YA author Brunet’s first adult novel and first appearance in English, winner of the 2018 Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, chronicles the fateful summer when the world of a pair of Provencal schoolgirl sisters is detonated from within.
Once she realizes that she’s pregnant, Céline Gomez knows she can’t expect help from her father, Manuel, the boss of a construction crew whose first impulse, as usual, is to beat her; or from her mother, Séverine, who bore Céline herself as a teenager and can’t get over the fact that her daughter is repeating her mistake; or from the teachers and classmates who stand by ready to judge her; or from the attractive man who fantasizes about photographing his seduction of a pregnant teen. The only person who’s supportive is her plain-Jane sister, Johanna, who’s always looked out for Céline even though she’s a year younger than her beautiful sister. As the summer months swell Céline’s belly and test the bond between the sisters, Manuel, taking his daughter’s disgrace as only the latest setback in a life full of them, seethes because he can’t identify the father. Then one night, while his daughters are at a party their mother has forbidden Céline from attending, he suddenly has an opportunity to take terrible revenge on the man he thinks is responsible. As his old mate and co-worker Patrick Bardin stands by in horror, he drunkenly, methodically beats the man to death and works feverishly to hide his body. Manuel’s choice of victim couldn’t be more ironic, and the murder is both shocking and inevitable. Even more ironic is the sequel, which finds Céline being rushed to the hospital months before the baby is due, Séverine telling off the social worker who’s been sent to help Céline, and the family proceeding very much as before, but now laden with an intolerable burden of guilt and shame.
A slow-motion nightmare notable for its evocation of febrile adolescent fantasies whose power extends well into adulthood.
Washington Independent Review of Books
The first pages of Summer of Reckoning are filled with such raw violence that many readers may pause before continuing on. The abuse — physical, verbal, and emotional — inflicted upon two teenage sisters by their parents is not only shocking; it somehow feels inevitable. A moment of tenderness or levity will not follow any initial jolt of trauma: There is very little here to soften the brutality.
Dear reader, more than one pause may be necessary. This book is Marion Brunet’s first adult novel — she is known for young-adult fiction — but she does not shy away from grownup content.
The story begins with 16-year-old Céline’s scandalous pregnancy and the mystery of who fathered the baby. She refuses to give up the man’s name, not even to her odd and fascinating younger sister, Jo, who has eyes of two different colors and a restless spirit.
Poverty and violence loom over every character at every moment of the book. There are no escape routes, no better lives on the horizon, and every leading figure is trapped by circumstance and geography, whether they realize it or not.
The setting, summertime Provence — more specifically, the Luberon region, full of lavender fields and hilltop villages — may sound idyllic and quaint, but it is only so for tourists. Céline, Jo, and their parents, Manuel and Severine, live in a world much less charming. In a book without a clear hero, antagonists are easy to find.
It is Manuel who emerges as a driving force in the narrative. His rage is on display from the very first page, when he learns of Céline’s pregnancy. Driven by revenge and racism, he blames Saïd, a young Arab friend of the family. From here, the plot unwinds slowly, in chapters that shift perspective among the main characters.
Jo often seems to be the only one who recognizes just how trapped her family is. In one of her many introspective moments, she walks alone, unmoved after a tumble into a field of olive trees. She thinks, “There’s nothing to do here. Without two wheels, without a car, it’s death.”
Quiet scenes often spike into violent sex or sudden cruelty. In one short but memorable passage, Jo meets newborn kittens, whose eyes, “still blind, open and close, trying to grasp the world,” before Saïd drowns them, one by one.
The crime, sex, and scathing language, however, never feel forced. Rather, it seems natural that, for these characters, potentially tender moments immediately turn dark.
The only times of gentleness occur between Jo and Céline. They protect each other fiercely, desperate not to be like their parents, though they feel it is inescapable. In the early days of Céline’s pregnancy, the sisters sneak into empty villas to go swimming as they have every summer, not yet realizing that this will not be possible once the baby arrives, once they grow up a little more.
They fight, play, and tell secrets in the moonlight of a rich woman’s pool:
“Their hiccupping laughter echoes against the stone walls of the villa. Their hair is stuck to their heads, their faces wet, their mouths open in a roaring laughter amplified by the night. Céline’s black mascara is running under her eyes. Her belly and her breasts relax in the eddies. And the turquoise light of the swimming pool gives them a magnificent drowned glow.”
Scenes such as this make it seem a bit of a stretch to call Summer of Reckoning a thriller. The story is certainly dark and menacing, but it does not thrill in the way readers may expect. The domestic thriller or suspense genre is home to novels such as Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, books with shocking twists and unreliable (and often unlikable) female narrators. Summer of Reckoning is not that kind of book. Its only mystery is the name of Céline’s baby’s father.
And yet, there is still some underlying layer of suspense that propels the reader forward. “Something is hatching, buzzing in the thick atmosphere, in the family silences,” Brunet writes. “She can feel it, like that sharp taste when biting into a green grape, on alert.” Summer of Reckoning, indeed, keeps the reader on alert, offering no easy rewards for patience.
This clever psychological crime thriller has a depth you might expect of a much larger literary novel. Of course, the French have never been snobbish about the crime versus contemporary literature divide and aren’t afraid of exploring complex themes in this genre, even so, this is an exceptional read. An utterly gripping story of small-town mores and the dark side of human nature. The Summer of Reckoning is elegantly written and beautifully structured, every sentence is relevant, each passage is heavy with meaning. The constant comparison and contrast between now and the past, between generations, is sharply observed and very striking.
Summer of Reckoning revolves around an apparently simple event, the unexpected pregnancy of a young girl, but Brunet manages to weave a complex and involving tale that not only encompasses the girl and her family but says something about the whole community, an exposé of the mentality of a hamlet trying to hold back the tide as if the modern world will go away if ignored. The characters are so well-drawn that the impact of the pregnancy can be witnesses through attitudes and reactions across the community and when people react it’s often with poisonous results born of their own failings and failures. Céline’s pregnancy sparks a storm but it’s clear that the family, the hamlet already had many problems. The tension is palpable; jealousy, anger, anxiety, thwarted dreams, envy, spite, machismo, racism, brutality – a cornucopia of raw feelings all building towards a tragic event.
A little hamlet in the Lauberon, it’s summer, the sun is shining, the funfair is in town, a family sets out to enjoy the evening, the tourists and the locals are mingling in the streets, the bars are full, there are music and noise everywhere. This happiness is momentary, or maybe just a facade, the joy of the holiday season is about to come crashing down, the escape is brief.
Later that night we see events through the eyes of the younger sister Johanna. The moment her father, a violent alcoholic, an ox of a man full of anger, can no longer contain his rage. Manuel slaps sixteen-year-old sister Céline so hard that she falls to the kitchen floor dazed and breathless. Despite Manuel’s fury, Céline is defiant, she won’t tell her parents the name of the father. Jo is frozen, her mother murmurs ‘stop it’ but it’s unclear who she aiming this at. Father continues to harangue Céline, eventually, her mother says:
“The bitch isn’t going to tell us anything.”
Just a short while ago the family had gone to the funfair, joining the ‘contagious ecstasy’. Céline with her ‘indecent beauty’ and revealing clothes, ‘… a birdbrain with the bearing of a queen.’ no one cares what Jo is wearing:
‘“Better keep an eye on your eldest,” Patrick’s wife said with a grimace suggesting envy.’
The first poison, it won’t be the last. Céline teases the boys as they vie for her attention, jostle to sit next to her on the rides. Dated music plays, a tune from 1996, the fair returns every year with the same music as if frozen in time, as if the past is revisiting the village. It’s not a coincidence that this music comes from a generation ago, the time when the girls' parents were dating, the story begins to draw parallels, is this generation to be punished for the thwarted dreams and mistakes of the past? Do the parents try to rewrite their own lives in their children’s future or crush it? The girls head to the Tarantula, the machine plunges and Céline faints, only Johanna seems to notice. When the ride end they gather round the girl, the adults run over, once again Patrick’s wife weighs in asking if Céline is pregnant.
Céline is pregnant, she calls on her neighbour Kadija, Saïd mother, for comfort. Céline assures her it’s not her son Saïd’s, Kadija is relieved, she wants a good girl for her boy. It’s a small rift, a change but nothing like at home. Her father is drinking with Patrick in the kitchen when Céline returns, she says she’s been to see Saïd. Patrick is quick to say you can’t trust Arabs. Her father should know better, but he’s tired and drunk and angry:
‘The poison acts, reaching deep into his brain. It soils everything and everybody, sticky like the giant Paulownia leaves… He longs to fight – constantly and with everybody.’
Jo and Céline also fight, like all sisters, normal life seems to return but underneath the poison continues to work. All the while the name of the father f Céline’s baby remains a secret. Jo, the intelligent, conflicted sister, wonders if Céline knows who the father is. I think readers will grasp the father’s identity but that doesn’t affect the drama, the shock at the turn of events as tragedy looms.
This portrait of a family and the hamlet is heavy with an atmosphere of poverty, of failing spirit and outdated attitudes and with the mental torpor and dissatisfaction of unfulfilled lives. It’s a touching portrait of two very different teenager girls and their poor start in life but both have spirit. Is Jo’s escape to a job in temporary? Is there hope here? A powerful novel that crackles with a malignant energy. It’s easy to see why this brilliant novel was the winner of the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, 2018. This is a wonderful translation by Katherine Gregor.
CrimeReads—5 International Crime Novels You Should Read This Month
This slow-burn psychological thriller is set in a region of France known for its opulent vacationers, but the year-round residents have a different experience, mired in poverty and bored out of their skulls. When an unwanted pregnancy sets in motion a complex chain of anger and vengeance, communities will crumble under the weight of long-sought reckonings.
European Literature Network ELN:
Marion Brunet is one of France’s best-known writers for young adults; this is her first novel for a general adult readership, but the issues it raises are very much those of young people – young people pretty much anywhere. What makes it such a compelling read, though, is the setting: Luberon, the Avignon area, more precisely the less attractive town of Cavaillon on the Durance river, a town without the luxurious villas of holiday brochures, a town of cheap houses and boredom: ‘… here, boredom is an art form, almost a life art …’ Over everything hangs the oppressive atmosphere of a Provençal summer – beautifully translated by Katherine Gregor: the blinding sunlight, the stickiness, the windless, shimmering heat all seep into your brain and your bones from the pages of this relentless, discomfiting story of two sisters with very different outlooks and prospects; of a dysfunctional family; of inter-racial tension and collapsing friendships.
Céline is beautiful, popular … and sexually aware beyond her years.
‘At fourteen … her triumphant breasts already heralded a bright future … [she] took advantage of this, since she couldn’t see anything beyond her talent for attracting men.’
Her sister, Jo, is a year younger, with quite another view of her world: she has
‘… odd eyes … one green, one blue … old people saw ill omens … and her peers a strangeness which pigeonholed her. Maybe … it’s this strangeness that forces her to look elsewhere, to want to escape.’
At sixteen, Céline’s ‘bright future’ turns out to be pregnancy – by whom she refuses to say. Their mother, Séverine, sees her own life in replay: she too was a teenager when Manuel, their father, got her pregnant and her happy adolescence vanished in a blizzard of regrets.
‘She wishes she was living … in a huge city, where nobody would know she’s about to become a grandmother at thirty-four … a gigantic city where she would never have grown up … a city where she wouldn’t have marked every bench and every wall with the insolence of her youth.’
Manuel is devastated by Céline’s pregnancy, hypocritical in his anger, which is exacerbated by his father-in-law’s continual contempt for him and for what he did, and frustrated by his dead-end job building the villas of the rich, which he tries to escape through drink. Céline’s refusal to name the father only fuels his alcoholic paranoia:
‘It’s obvious everybody’s been talking about the girl … Manuel imagines them laughing at him behind his back … [he] sees eyes and laughter everywhere and an insult in every kindness.’
He imagines every man who knows about it is the one who impregnated her. But, above all, his suspicions turn to Saïd. Saïd is eighteen, an Arab, and a small-time wheeler-dealer. Moreover, Saïd is a long-term schoolfriend of both Céline and Jo; he’s always hanging around them and he fits Manuel’s small-town prejudice of who the putative father would be. Egged on by his workmate Patrick, Manuel’s suspicions crystallise into certainty, and the stage is set for events that will change the lives of them all.
This novel is pervaded by a brooding sense of betrayal and unfulfillment, of sadness and revenge for the harsh realities of provincial French life, of the desperation of people forever looking for the main chance, but never finding it. Once you’ve read Summer of Reckoning, Provence will never seem the same again.
The French region of Luberon is popular with tourists and wealthy Parisians. They find the southern accents charming and the scenery bucolic. But who are the people building their villas? Who populates the villages? Who speaks with the accents that they find so beguiling? Families such as the one that this novel is centred around are who: working-class families that are living hand to mouth and who’s lives are ones of quiet desperation.
Sixteen-year-old Céline is pregnant and won’t tell her family who the father is. Her fifteen-year-old sister, Jo, is a tomboy and more worldly-wise. She has dreams of escaping this small-town life, and out of all the family, she’s the one most likely to make it. Severine, their mother, is like Céline: at one time she had it all, was the one every boy wanted, but then she got pregnant young, settled down, and her dreams were dashed. Manuel is the father, a gruff son of Spanish immigrants, a man whose ancestry has him feel an outsider in his French homeland, and who is too fond of a drink and too quick to use his fists. On the periphery of the family are Manuel’s friend, Patrick, and his wife, Valérie. Then there’s Saïd, a childhood friend of the girls with a soft spot for Jo, who lives just down the road.
At heart, this is a novel about desperation. Céline’s pregnancy is the catalyst that brings tensions that have long bubbled beneath the surface to the fore. Jo has always longed for escape, and the escalating family strife brings this to a sharper focus. Severine and Valérie each feels unfulfilled by their respective marriages and live lives of regret. Both now see and experience this more clearly in the aftermath of Céline’s shock pregnancy. But it is Manuel, and to a lesser extent Patrick, for whom Céline’s pregnancy has the most devastating psychological consequences. They have long fostered resentments and slights, felt their masculinity and pride under threat, and the pregnancy awakens this ever further.
The Summer of Reckoning could have been set in many a post-industrial setting around the world, where those working in traditional industries have long felt threatened by immigration and globalisation. These are the people who have all too often been forgotten and courted by the political extremes. While such politics don’t feature in this novel, one can well imagine Manuel being seduced by the politics of the far-right, and his willingness to blame his Arab neighbours, and in particular, his daughters’ friend, Saïd, is particularly troubling.
A brilliant novel with no easy answers and no unrealistic and rosy culmination, this is a very powerful read.
Crime Fiction Lover:
— Some teenage summers are just too awkward and painful to revisit. In this psychological thriller, which won the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, French crime fiction author Marion Brunet expertly describes a summer of that exact type, except that, unlike most summers, it ends with a brutal murder.
The story is set in Luberon, a region in the South of France that has three mountain ranges running across it and villages in the valleys between. The nearest big city and the one the characters in this novel relate to is Marseille. Tourism promoters emphasise the area’s picturesque villages, but that is not the kind of place where 16-year-old Céline and her 15-year-old sister, Johanna, live with their brutish father, Manuel, and unsympathetic mother, Séverine.
Brunet does a superb job of describing the tedium of living in a bleak, poverty-stricken town where not much is going on, the simmering resentments of teenagers, the way even the smallest community has its corrosive secrets, and the uneasy transitions between adolescence and adulthood and between young adulthood and worn-out middle age. It’s one of those places that has violence hanging over it, and if the truth ever came out, well . . .
An opening scene has the family walking with barely concealed excitement to one of the summer’s highlights – a funfair with rides and all. Céline is the more glamorous of the sisters, ‘revealing her indecent beauty with outfits that were too tight, her denim shorts cut so high the fold between her buttocks and thighs opened and closed with every step she took’. Jo is uninterested in her appearance, wearing skinny jeans with dirty knees and a shapeless black tank top. Her eyes are her only distinctive feature, one green, one blue.
At the funfair, Céline flirts outrageously with the boys, while Jo watches her sister critically, ‘a year older, a birdbrain with the bearing of a queen’, she thinks. On a ride called the Tarantula, which plunges from a great height, Céline gets sick to her stomach and vomits when the ride stops. The parents rush to her side. ‘Your daughter’s not pregnant, is she?’ asks a family friend. Then the fun really starts, because Céline is indeed pregnant.
Céline’s father is determined that she tell him who the father of her baby is, and Céline is equally determined not to. Fortunately, Johanna doesn’t know, so she can’t be cajoled, bribed or beaten into revealing the secret.
Manuel isn’t letting go of his anger, and settles into a nightly routine of beer-drinking, letting notions of revenge blossom in his addled head. Long-buried resentments – the too-soon pregnancy of Séverine and her precipitous unhappy marriage to Manuel, the disdain Séverine’s family feels for her husband – and the destructive prejudices born of ignorance all rise to the surface. But will he act on this rage? Even Jo embarks on an erratic effort to try for a better school and better friends, which goes awry when she steals her wealthier friend’s clothing.
As the summer drags on Jo’s grandfather dies, and her best friend Saïd goes missing after an unexpected display of wealth. No one much worries about his until the police show up for a desultory inquiry. The ill-fated summer drags on.
Nicely written and translated, well-paced, unsentimental, Summer of Reckoning puts the four family members under a microscope, and none of them comes off unscathed. Brunet writes with economy, and though the book is relatively short at 218 pages, it creates an indelible impression of a certain kind of life, far from the idyllic picture typical of the South of France.
Marion Brunet was born in the Vaucluse, also in the South of France, and is a well-known, prize-winning author of young adult novels in her native country. This experience no doubt contributes to her effectiveness in capturing the spirit and preoccupations of teenage girls. Summer of Reckoning is her first novel written for adults and the first to be translated into English.
“With raw, chilling and incisive prose, Brunet takes us into a world of sectarian convictions dominated by the hatred of the rich, the bosses, the foreigners and the ‘different’.” --L’Express
“With its intense rage, corrosive boredom and low-life scams, Brunet’s South of France is saturated with broken dreams. And the last flickers of childhood are terrifying, proving that, even under the strong sun, social barriers remain implacable.”--Paris Match
“A story that is dark and luminous at the same time, dark following the slow unraveling of the crime story affecting Celine, and luminous in Joe’s conviction that she will escape this sinister world. A novel that leaves you heart-stricken and seduced.”--Le Monde
“Dramatic tension is evident from the very beginning of this fierce and dark novel, well served by terse, direct and brilliant prose. The characters are strong, seemingly right beside us, nervous, anxious, overworked, and perspiring under the southern sun.” --Le Temps
“Impresses with its mastery of rhythm and atmospheres, its acute powers of observation and the power of its writing, fierce, physical, and intense.”-Telerama