Summer of Reckoning by Marion Brunet
This clever psychological crime thriller has a depth you might expect of a much larger literary novel. Of course, the French have never been snobbish about the crime versus contemporary literature divide and aren’t afraid of exploring complex themes in this genre, even so this is an exceptional read. An utterly gripping story of small town mores and the dark side of human nature. The Summer of Reckoning is elegantly written and beautifully structured, every sentence is relevant, each passage is heavy with meaning. The constant comparison and contrast between now and the past, between generations is sharply observed and very striking.
Summer of Reckoning revolves around an apparently simple event, the unexpected pregnancy of a young girl, but Brunet manages to weave a complex and involving tale that not only encompasses the girl and her family but says something about the whole community, an exposé of the mentality of a hamlet trying to hold back the tide, as if the modern world will go away if ignored. The characters are so well drawn that the impact of the pregnancy can be witnesses through attitudes and reactions across the community and when people react it’s often with poisonous results born of their own failings and failures. Céline’s pregnancy sparks a storm but it’s clear that the family, the hamlet already had many problems. The tension is palpable; jealousy, anger, anxiety, thwarted dreams, envy, spite, machismo, racism, brutality – a cornucopia of raw feelings all building towards a tragic event.
A little hamlet in the Lauberon, it’s summer, the sun is shining, the funfair is in town, a family sets out to enjoy the evening, the tourists and the locals are mingling in the streets, the bars are full, there’s music and noise everywhere. This happiness is momentary, or maybe just a facade, the joy of the holiday season is about to come crashing down, the escape is brief.
Later that night we see events through the eyes of the younger sister Johanna. The moment her father, a violent alcoholic, an ox of a man full of anger, can no longer contain his rage. Manuel slaps sixteen year old sister Céline so hard that she falls to the kitchen floor dazed and breathless. Despite Manuel’s fury Céline is defiant, she won’t tell her parents the name of the father. Jo is frozen, her mother murmurs ‘stop it’ but it’s unclear who she aiming this at. Father continues to harangue Céline, eventually her mother says:
“The bitch isn’t going to tell us anything.”
Just a short while ago the family had gone to the funfair, joining the ‘contagious ecstasy’. Céline with her ‘indecent beauty’ and revealing clothes, ‘… a birdbrain with the bearing of a queen.’ no one cares what Jo is wearing:
‘“Better keep an eye on your eldest,” Patrick’s wife said with a grimace suggesting envy.’
The first poison, it won’t be the last. Céline teases the boys as they vie for her attention, jostle to sit next to her on the rides. Dated music plays, a tune from 1996, the fair returns every year with the same music as if frozen in time, as if the past is revisiting the village. It’s not a coincidence that this music comes from a generation ago, the time when the girls parents were dating, the story begins to draw parallels, is this generation to be punished for the thwarted dreams and mistakes of the past? Do the parents try to rewrite their own lives in their children’s future or crush it? The girls head to the Tarantula, the machine plunges and Céline faints, only Johanna seems to notice. When the ride end they gather round the girl, the adults run over, once again Patrick’s wife weighs in asking if Céline is pregnant.
Céline is pregnant, she calls on her neighbour Kadija, Saïd mother, for comfort. Céline assures her it’s not her son Saïd’s, Kadija is relieved, she wants a good girl for her boy. It’s a small rift, a change but nothing like at home. Her father is drinking with Patrick in the kitchen when Céline returns, she says she’s been to see Saïd. Patrick is quick to say you can’t trust Arabs. Her father should know better, but he’s tired and drunk and angry:
‘The poison acts, reaching deep into his brain. It’s soils everything and everybody, sticky like the giant Paulownia leaves… He longs to fight – constantly and with everybody.’
Jo and Céline also fight, like all sisters, normal life seems to return but underneath the poison continues to work. All the while the name of the father f Céline’s baby remains a secret. Jo, the intelligent, conflicted sister, wonders if Céline knows who the father is. I think readers will grasp the father’s identity but that doesn’t affect the drama, the shock at the turn of events as tragedy looms.
This portrait of a family and the hamlet is heavy with an atmosphere of poverty, of failing spirit and outdated attitudes and with the mental torpor and dissatisfaction of unfulfilled lives. It’s a touching portrait of two very different teenager girls and their poor start in life but both have spirit. Is Jo’s escape to a job in temporary? Is there hope here?
A powerful novel that crackles with a malignant energy. It’s easy to see why this brilliant novel was the winner of the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, 2018. This is a wonderful translation by Katherine Gregor.
Bitter Lemon Press, March, ISBN 9781912242269.
Summer of Reckoning by Marion Brunet