Summer of Reckoning

Marion Brunet’s debut novel for adults, Summer of Reckoning, (now translated by Katherine Gregor) won the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, a prestigious French award for crime fiction which has been running since the 1940s, in 2018. This is both a recommendation of quality but also, to some extent, a deception, because the novel is not a typical example of crime fiction. For a start the violent crime at the centre of the book is exactly there – in fact, if anything, nearer the end. And once it is committed, there is no investigation worth the name in a crime novel entirely lacking a detective. Instead the novel focuses on the lives of its working class characters in a small village in the south of the country, and delivers a biting social commentary of the casual misogyny and racism that is endemic in their attitudes and experiences.

Having said that, the novel is still a whodunit, as it opens with the discovery that sixteen-year-old Celine is pregnant:

“Who’s the piece of shit that did this to you? Who’s the son of a bitch who dared?”

her father, Manuel, shouts at her after slapping her across the face, but she refuses to tell him. Just hours earlier his attitude had been different, if just as unsettling:

“The father smiled proudly his eyes following Celine’s small backside. Sixteen and promising.”

Looks are all Celine has to give her at least some kind of status and power. “At just fourteen,” we are told, “Celine’s triumphant breasts already heralded a bright future if she was able to use those charms.” Her sister, Jo, one year younger, realises, “girls held trump cards,” but at the same time:

“…since they hadn’t drawn up the rules of the game, they were shafted whatever they did.”

Her intelligence allows her a possible escape route, though she is also characterised by her breast size – “so small she doesn’t wear a bra.” Perhaps as a writer of young adult fiction, Brunet is not afraid to see the world as a young adult: for these girls their body, and how they show or hide it, is an central aspect of who they are, and also how they are defined by others.

It is Manuel’s friend, Patrick, who first puts the idea in his head that Said, a boy the girls have known since childhood, might be the father. “You can’t trust a fucking Arab,” he tells him. From this point on Said becomes the prime suspect in Manuel’s mind. Said, on the other hand, seems to feel more affection for Jo – like her, he has a chance of escaping his roots, in his case using his (not necessarily strictly legal) entrepreneurial skills.

Brunet draws attention to the class divide throughout the novel. In one early scene, Céline and Jo climb over the wall to bathe in the pool of an empty villa:

“They used to play at this being their own home, pretended they were princesses or starlets, chatted about a million crazy plans, about riding clubs and trips, putting on a posh accent.”

Céline and Jo are actually invited to such a house when Jo meets a girl at the theatre in Avignon. At the party a boy gets Céline drunk so he can film himself having sex with her, proving that men do not necessarily improve with money. An equally tense scene of class conflict occurs over an ornamental pond, when the client tells Manuel pointedly that she needs it finished:

“He’d happily tell it straight to this posh bitch. These marble slabs, a thousand euros a piece, are already sticking in his throat.”

We can see where Manuel’s anger comes from – a frustration at his general powerlessness. “He longs to fight – constantly and with everybody,” we are told, and the potential for violence, therefore, is always there.

When that violence does occur it is particularly horrific, though perhaps more horrific is the way in which that scene has little repercussion throughout the rest of the novel. In this it is as if Brunet is using the genre to comment on society by breaking the rules of crime fiction in order to highlight injustice. Then novel ends much as it begins (in French its title was L’Ete Circulaire), Céline and Jo largely unchanged, “they still have a little childhood left, with its scraps of hope and its effect on the future.”

The play which Jo sees in Avignon is Edward Bond’s Summer. Bond once said, “It would be too presumptuous of me to say that I consider myself a voice of the working class but I do consider myself a voice from it….” There is something similar in Brunet’s novel, far from polemic or academic, but raw and unfiltered. It lacks the literary style of Annie Ernaux or Eduard Louis, two ‘escapees’, but its directness amid its changing viewpoints is a powerful representation of those left behind.

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8 Responses to “Summer of Reckoning”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    Not an author I’ve comes across before, but – as always — it’s useful to have an introduction from you. I like the idea that the book subverts the usual conventions of crime fiction, looking at the context of the situation from another angle. That’s very interesting in and of itself…

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    I was thinking when I read Lizzy’s review of this that it sounded quite dark, and your review convinces me it’s very raw indeed Grant. Possibly not for me right now, but interesting how the author uses the crime fiction genre to critique the issues.

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, it would be interesting to use on a crime fiction reading list. I know a lot of crime writers give this as their reason for writing (Mankell, Rankin) but they largely stick to the format of crime fiction.

  3. Emma Says:

    Guy has reviewed this one too.

    I still find the theme of teenage pregnancy rather strange for a French novel as it is very rare. (the rate per 1000 women is 4 four times higher in the US)

    Crime fiction is a good genre for social commentary. I should read this one.

  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    It sounds very good, though I can’t say I take to the cover particularly. I’m reminded slightly of Pineiro’s Thursday Night Widows which though ostensibly a crime novel really is nothing of the kind. There’s a crime, but it’s not where the novel’s interest lies.

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