Marie Redonnet is a French writer who was widely translated in the 1990s when five of her novels appeared from the University of Nebraska Press, the majority, like Nevermore, translated by Jordan Stump. Nevermore originally appeared in 1994, with the English translation following in 1996, and, despite no UK publication, I have included it in the missing Independent Foreign Fiction Prize long list in an effort to improve the representation of women writers. It’s a short novel with a large cast of characters, a portrait of a small town as much as any individual, told in a dispassionate, one might even say emotionless, narrative voice.

The novel opens with the arrival of two newcomers to San Rosa, an American town with French features (particularly the pissotiere, which will prove to be important to the plot). The first is Willy Bost who will be taking up a post as deputy to Commander Rodney Burke in what appears to be a two man police force; the second is Cassy Mac Key who has accepted a job as a singer at the night club Babylon. They arrive together as Willy’s car breaks down and has to be towed into town by Cassy. Both characters see San Rosa as an escape. Willy “wants to forget the past” and even writes in the notebook he carries:

“It is forbidden to remember the past.”

His transfer to Sam Rosa is a punishment “because he is considered undesirable in High Places.” Cassy, too, feels she has few options:

“She could pack her suitcase and flee. But to go where? With her CV no one would hire her.”

They both stay at the Gold House, a boarding house run by Lizzie Malik. Once an acrobat in the Fuch Circus, she had almost died in an accident that she believes was an attempt to murder her:

“In hospital, as soon as she came out of her coma, she began to shout that someone had cut her rope and had tried to kill her.”

The mystery of who killed her will form one of the novel’s main plot stands, alongside a complicated rivalry for political supremacy in the town which is linked to competing entertainment establishments, Babylon being one.

None of this, however, quite conveys the strangeness of the novel. This is apparent in its prose style and its deliberate lack of complexity. The sentences are, in general, not short enough to be dramatic, but not long enough to be complex; they are what you might call ‘medium’ sentences, and tend to stick to one idea and avoid conjunctions. This can make the novel read almost like a children’s book, particularly as Redonnet likes to use character names, including full names, frequently:

“Lizzie Mallik is just finishing the morning dishes when Willy Bost comes into the kitchen. She is relieved that he is behaving towards her as though nothing had happened. That is the best solution for both of them.”

The reference here, though, illustrates one aspect of the novel that makes it far from suitable for children: the preponderance of loveless sex acts. On his first night in the Gold House, Willy feels inexplicably aroused, so he invites Lizzie to his room and “asks her to suck him, as if it were an order,” which she does. Cassy has an even more disturbing encounter on her first night at Babylon, when the owner, Dora Atter:

“…runs her silk gloved hands over Cassy Mac Key’s body. Then she pinches her until bruises appear. She takes an instrument out of her pocket, and thrusts it into her vagina until she groans in pain.”

These incidents add to the sense of a town where power is everything, and ruthlessness is rewarded. Violence is not only sexual, and when President Harley (who has also assaulted Cassy) is found murdered in the pissotiere at the Fuch Circus, the power struggle in San Rosa comes out into the open. The journalist Danny Sapin proposes that, “The only solution is to demolish the city centre and to construct a new centre, one worthy of San Rosa.” On the other hand, Father Anderson, in his sermon, argues:

“What must be done is not to destroy the city centre but to save it, in order to make of it the city of God.”

Here, Redonnet, seems to tap into arguments still current: destroy and start again versus ‘save’ (improve) what we have. In fact, for all it is now almost thirty years old, the novel’s portrayal of small town American life does not feel dated, precisely because of its rejection of realism. It is, however, far from optimistic: the town is a snake pit of competition where sides are taken, rules are broken and winners and losers swap places overnight. Redonnet has a unique and memorable voice and vision and well deserves her place on the long list.

Tags: , ,

9 Responses to “Nevermore”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Sounds intriguing but a bit weird Grant – maybe she didn’t find much of an audience at the time??

    • 1streading Says:

      I’m not sure. It is a weird reading experience. I’ve got another couple, of her books so after I’ve read those I may have a better idea. It certainly does highlight the importance of WITMonth as I have struggled to find many translated women for this year.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    It’s an interesting (as in slightly odd) prose style – your quotes give a good sense of it, I think. How did you find it overall? I can envisage it working in small bursts, but maybe the style becomes somewhat wearisome after a while?

    • 1streading Says:

      Perhpas not wearisome but it is quite alienating. It prevents the reader gripping onto a character in they way they are used to. It is a short book – a longer one might get a bit much!

  3. SaaniaSparkle 🧚🏻‍♀️ Says:

    Nice blog

  4. MarinaSofia Says:

    The sentences you quote do sound very much like some other French writers when they are translated into English (Modiano, Leila Slimani etc.). I’ve noticed this before. There is an untranslatability there, that a style which simply seems plain and unadorned in French reads as flat and odd in English.

    • 1streading Says:

      You may be right, though this reads very differently to Modiano or Slimani – the use of full names, for example, is clearly deliberate. The style was not a negative for me, though I thought it only fair to mention it.

  5. The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 1996 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Nevermore by Marie Redonnet, translated from the French by Jordan Stump (University of Nebraska Press)# […]

  6. Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Winner 1996 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Nevermore by Marie Redonnet, translated from the French by Jordan Stump (University of Nebraska Press) […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: