Posts Tagged ‘Veronique Olmi’

Daughters Beyond Command

January 29, 2023

Until now, Veronique Olmi has been largely known for her first novel, Beside the Sea, published in 2001 and translated by Adriana Hunter in 2012 as one of the first Peirene Press novellas. Only one further novel has appeared in English since, Bakhita, also translated by Hunter. Now her 2020 novel, Les évasions particulalières, is available from Europa Editions in a translation by Alison Anderson as Daughters Beyond Command, a reference to Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin (“Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command”), a verse from which is used as the novel’s epigraph. This seems appropriate in a novel which is very much about changing times, beginning in 1970 and ending with Mitterrand’s election in 1981. Ten years may not seem a particularly long time for a novel which seeks to show the radical transformation of French society, and especially the place of women within it, but it is also the decade in which its three central characters, the daughters Sabine, Helene and Mariette, grow up.

The three of them are born in Aix-en-Provence, almost five hundred miles from Paris, in a Catholic family in modest circumstances: their father, Bruno, is a schoolteacher, and their mother, Agnes, doesn’t work. Agnes does, however, have a rich sister, Michelle, with whom the middle daughter, Helene, (eleven when the novel opens) frequently stays, which leaves her living between two worlds in the same way she lives between her two sisters:

“The joy she felt being back with her family was somewhat forced; she was always afraid, on seeing them again, that she wouldn’t be in step anymore.”

She is often referred to by Michelle’s married name as ‘the Tavel girl’, emphasising her split loyalties – and her devotion to Michelle’s husband, David, continues throughout the novel, even as Sabine becomes class conscious, and Helene’s own beliefs, focused on animal welfare, also clash with the lives of the upper classes.

Sabine finds her life in Aix-en-Provence suffocating and is already planning to leave as soon as she can:

“She had to break free from her family and from the college; she had to prepare herself for the life that was waiting for her.”

Sabine’s desire to ‘break free’ mirrors that of many women at the time. Her family is Catholic, and Catholicism is at the centre of her parents’ identity. This does not manifest in cruelty – both Bruno and Agnes are generally kind and slow to anger – but in a rigid view of the world that can be intolerant and avoid difficult topics. When Sabine has her first period, Agnes tells her to be careful – but only later does Sabine understand she means not to get pregnant:

“Adults didn’t talk about these things. Nor did parents. Or teachers. Or any of their books.”

Only chance gives them access to a different viewpoint when Bruno rescues a girl, Rose, who has been knocked off her bike. Rose’s mother, Laurence, befriends Agnes, but she is a very different woman:

“Laurence was a free woman – untidy, joyful, and assertive. She didn’t live with her husband. She wasn’t divorced, just separated, and the difference was huge, because otherwise Bruno would never have allowed his wife to be her friend.”

Laurence also allows the sisters to see their mother differently. When she comments on Agnes’ slim figure, and how she, too, looks like a sister, they realise “that figure indicated that their mother had not lived through her youth, because she hadn’t had one.” Agnes will change over the course of the novel too, training as a post-woman in order to have a job, and also taking a decision which goes against her beliefs, one that she then keeps from her husband. The daughters find it increasingly difficult to understand their parents: “it felt to the girls as if they were separated by more than one generation.”

As the novel progresses, Sabine and Helene leave home. Sabine goes to Paris to become an actress, Helene to study. This allows Olmi to explore both their personal and political lives. Sabine’s is outwardly more turbulent – falling in love with a man who will not commit to a relationship and becoming increasingly radical in her political views. Helene seems more settled, but her belief in animal rights is possibly even more radical at the time. Michelle’s attitude to being told Helene is a vegetarian – “I’m sure she’ll have a bite” – is no doubt typical of the time.

The novel ends with the election of François Mitterrand in 1981, regarded by both Sabine and Helene as a moment of hope. Olmi’s success, however, lies not in the political aspect of the novel, but in the way in which she views such changes in attitude through the lens of one family. Daughters Beyond Command is both panoramic and personal, and it is this combination which makes it such an outstanding historical novel of the ordinary woman.