Tuesday, March 12, 2024

The Birthday Party, by Laurent Mauvignier

Transit Books, 2023
originally published 2020 as Histoires de la nuit 
translated by  Daniel Levin Becker
439 pp

I've described this book to friends as a demanding novel due to its style, but once you get used to the way it is written, it becomes unputdownable. It's also a story that eventually began to  fry my nerves until the last page, and I have to admit that more than once I was beyond tempted to just take a peek to make sure everything came out okay.  I didn't, of course, but I really, REALLY wanted to.  

There are three houses in the small hamlet of La Bassée, two of which are occupied and one of which is empty and on the market waiting to be sold.  In one of these houses is the family Bergogne, consisting of Patrice, Marion and their daughter Ida; in the other is their older neighbor, Christine, who lives alone with her dog.  Patrice has carried on the same life he grew up with and had kept the family farm  "in the hands of Bergogne, as his father had wanted."  Marion works in a print shop in the nearby town and Christine is an artist, having left behind "the Parisian life" to able to "do some real work."   

The relationship between Marion and Patrice is somewhat strained; he is overweight, a meek and mild sort of man,  holding in check the violence that he knows is inside of him, the same that he witnessed in his father.  She is younger and more energetic, impulsive; she likes to go out dancing often with her friends,  which makes him feel as though she "prefers their company to his." He never asks about her outings, while she never volunteers anything about them or much else, really.   He does "everything in his power to be pleasant" with her, always worrying about things, especially that she could "leave on a whim" if he did say something.  It's a lonely existence for the two, relieved mainly by the presence of Ida, whom they both love very much and who stays at Christine's house after school while her parents are working.   Marion and Christine don't get along very well, with Christine making sarcastic digs at Marion which Marion answers with silence.   But it's Marion's 40th birthday, and Christine, Ida, and Patrice are preparing for a party he's giving her. While Patrice's invitation to her two work friends is a surprise that Marion knows nothing about, what transpires that evening will be completely unexpected by everyone.

The story covers two days in the lives of these people; in the first, the author allows his characters to go about their business of every day life while allowing the reader a glimpse into the tensions that exist among them,  while in the second he moves them into full-on crisis mode.    The action is slow and very controlled, with the narrative moving from character to character without wrecking the reading flow as the pressure intensifies from moment to moment.  The back blurb notes that the story is a "deft unraveling of the stories we hide from others and from ourselves," which it is in part, but I see it more as an intense character study examining lives that are already on the edge as they become pushed into a situation well beyond their control.  

Labeled as a "gripping tale of the violent irruptions of the past into the present,"  it's easy to understand why this book has been described by so many readers as a thriller -- it is definitely a nailbiter, and I have to say that the author does a fine job of leaving the answer to the key question of "why" all of this is happening until almost the very end, a factor that keeps the pages turning.  The Birthday Party may be frustrating for some people who like swift action, or who don't particularly care for long, streaming paragraphs, but as I noted earlier, once I got the reading rhythm under my belt I did not want to put it down.  I do think though, for reasons I won't get into here, that whoever decided on the title should have used the translated original, as it makes so much more sense and adds another layer of depth to the story as a whole. 

Recommended, for sure. 

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