It’s easy to see why Pascal Garnier is frequently compared to Georges Simenon, and not only because of the English-speaking world’s limited supply of famous French writers’ names at its fingertips. Like Simenon, his novels are short and (apparently) numerous, and their violence is rooted in the everyday. This is not the Simenon of Maigret, however, where we shadow the enigmatic detective until the mystery is solved, but the often darker Simenon of his stand-alone novels where ordinary men and women find themselves pushed to the edge, caught in acts they would at one time have thought unthinkable: crime novels with crime, rather than detection, at their heart.
The Islanders is the latest of Garnier’s novels to be published by Gallic Books, translated, like two of the five others, by Emily Boyce. Garnier begins by introducing us to his cast of characters as they move remorselessly towards the coincidence of their collision. Olivier, arriving by train in Versailles to organise his mother’s funeral, seems harmless, though a reference to his detox treatment (“I told myself I was on a desert island”) two years ago suggests a less than straight-forward past. We are also aware of his reluctance to be there, not having been close to his mother:
“He had long since scrumpled all family ties into a ball and chucked it over his shoulder.”
Roland’s appearance is more notable: he has just lost his job as Father Christmas after a punch up with a fellow Santa:
“Roland and the other guy had been at on another’s throats like two hooker’s fighting for turf.”
Garnier’s greatest grotesque comes next, however; an obese, blind man with a perverse sense of humour. We find Rodophe in the Lourve where he likes to sit facing Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa, asking passers-by to describe it to him before shocking them with stories of how a few survived (he claims three survived – true of the novel but not of the Medusa). The raft is, of course, an island of sorts, driving its inhabitants to desperate acts in the name of survival, much like, we will discover, the characters of this novel. Finally, we meet Rodolphe’s apparently devoted sister, Jeanne. She, too, however, shares something of her brother’s wicked humour, deciding to buy him a set of scales for Christmas:
“It was a completely useless gift since Rudolphe didn’t care two hoots about his obesity and would not be able to see the reading anyway.”
All four characters are united in their unhappiness, and soon their four stories begin to run together. When Olivier knocks on a neighbour’s door and Jeanne answers, it is not the first time they have met:
“He had come round to ask his neighbour for the phone and found himself face to face with his past, with Jeanne, his Jeanne, the Jeanne of his youth with whom his life had turned upside down, and again he felt knocked off balance.”
In adolescence, Olivier and Jeanne had been inseparable, describing themselves as an island:
“The island was everywhere…They carried it with them wherever they went; they were the island, a mound of sand with a palm tree and Jeanne and Olivier standing under it like the model bride and groom on a wedding cake.”
This siege mentality is quickly rekindled, especially once Olivier starts drinking again. Meanwhile, much alcohol is also being consumed by Rodolphe and Roland, Rodolphe having found Roland in a church and offered to buy him all the food and clothes he wants, before inviting him back home. The foursome are soon in party mood, albeit a rather tense, uncomfortable party, but by morning one of them will be dead.
This is, of course, only the brilliant set-up of The Islanders: we have still to discover the secret which binds Olivier and Jeanne together, and also witness the desperate scrabble for survival which will follow the unexpected fatality. (Garnier’s novels may be short, but a lot happens). With his acerbic wit, grotesquely fascinating characters, and transfixing plotting, Garnier is an author who should appeal, like Simenon, well beyond his genre.