Lost Books – Forever Valley

I first encountered French writer Marie Redonnet when I was compiling a long list for the missing Independent Foreign Fiction Prize of 1996 and, although her novel Nevermore was not technically eligible having been published in the US, I included her as I was finding UK publishing not entirely welcoming to women in translation that year. Forever Valley is an earlier book (originally published in 1987) but similarly translated by Jordan Stump in the mid-nineties. The story is in many ways a simple one: a sixteen-year-old girl -perhaps an orphan – brought up by a priest in the shadow of a ruined church begins work in a dancehall where sleeping with the customers is part of her job description; at the same time, she begins a ‘personal project’ to dig for the dead in the rectory garden. As Redonnet explains in an interview, included in the book, the story is, for her, something that evolves from the writing:

“It is after all the writing (what you call the stye) that contains the fiction, it is the writing that creates meaning. When I am not engaged in the process of writing I know nothing of the story I am going to write, and when I have begun to write, I know nothing of what will follow.”

This gives her writing a dream-like quality which makes events seem both unexpected and inevitable. Like Kafka, her stories feel like fables to which the idea of a ‘moral’ is entirely foreign.

The ironically named Forever Valley and its ruined church has been reduced over time from a village to a hamlet and is now reliant on the valley below. The father (as he is referred to by our sixteen-year-old narrator) is “much too old to move to another parish.” The narrator has never been taught how to read, and is ignorant about life and even her own origins:

“The father must have raised me so I can look after him in his old age… Now that his legs are becoming paralysed, he would have to leave the rectory and go to the home if I were not here.”

When she turns sixteen, the father turns her education over to Massi, the only other inhabitant of the valley, once the wife of its mayor, now a widow with a dancehall, which relies on the custom of the herdsmen and the customs officers from the valley below. The narrator is given a low-cut dress and high heels:

“She said then father raised me well and I am just right for the customs officers.”

While Massi hires milkmaids to dance with the herdsmen, she regards the custom officers as superior and requiring a more refined woman – up to now she has dealt with them herself. She teaches the narrator to dance but also instructs her “what I will have to do when I go up to my room with one of the custom officers.” As she is behind is her ‘development’ the custom officers won’t have to take precautions – whether Redonnet’s intention is simply to emphasise her innocence or to suggest that she is not, in fact, sixteen is unclear. What is certain is that it plays a part in the novel’s portrayal of a patriarchal society where even the independent Massi is in thrall to the chief customs officer. At the heart of this is the father who, even as he is physically incapacitated, still wields power: it is to him that Massi gives her earnings so he can invest them, visiting him every week with a homemade cake.

Alongside her new job at the dancehall, the narrator begins a ‘personal project’ to find the dead:

“If the dead are in the garden, they can only be found by digging pits. Over time they have become invisible.”

Though she wants the project to be hers alone (“I would rather the father did not see me”) the father insists on being present while she digs:

“It’s not a little thing to dig a pit. It doesn’t go quickly, especially as I have to keep an eye on father as I dig. He leans forward too far to see what I am doing and when he leans forward too far, his hat falls off.”

Having established the narrator’s situation, Redonnet does imbue the story with a certain amount of plot. The milkmaids drink tainted milk which turns their skin yellow; the custom officers are threatened with dismissal when it is discovered the customs post is unmanned when they are at the dancehall; the father becomes increasingly paralysed and closer to death. The narrator grows a little:

“I have learned a great deal in two weeks. I can’t count on Massi or the father.”

In this sense, the novel might even be seen as a coming-of-age story, as the narrator frees herself from the influence of the father, and of Forever Valley itself. It is certainly, for all its strangeness, a compelling story from a wonderfully unique imagination.


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4 Responses to “Lost Books – Forever Valley”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    It’s good to see the return of your occasional ‘Lost Books’ series, Grant, and this author certainly seems to fit the bill. The fable-like quality of the story definitely comes through from your review.

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