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.
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.
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