Written by Pascal Garnier, translated by Melanie Florence — The translations of French noir writer Pascal Garnier’s short novels have taken the English-speaking world by storm. We have reviewed a few of them on our site including How’s the Pain and The Front Seat Passenger, and he regularly features in our lists of favourites from France.
And yet Low Heights, with its striking white vulture cover image, starts off in an uncharacteristically cheerful, almost jaunty, fashion. Edouard Laevenant is a retired widower with a crippled arm and a cranky manner. His live-in nurse and housekeeper Therese has been through worse and refuses to allow herself to be bullied by him. Their sharp, swift exchanges are full of humour and we witness a burgeoning tenderness between the two. The author is a genius at conveying so much depth of character with just a few brushstrokes, and he has a fantastic ear for dialogue. So far, so good. It feels like A Man Called Ove territory, perhaps, and nothing like the sinister darkness we have come to expect from Garnier’s brand of French noir. Even when a young man calls at his door, claiming to be the son he never knew he had, things remain fairly even. Edouard is initially suspicious but soon mellows.
But you just know something bad is going to happen. Those vultures circling at the top of the mountain and the strange pair of ladies they keep encountering must foreshadow something dramatic. And sure enough, events take a nasty turn, but our lips are sealed for fear of spoiling the surprise.
As always with Garnier, this is not just about death, violence and crime, but a potent meditation on ageing and loneliness. It is also a perfect description of the natural environment and our human place within it. Garnier was also a painter, and this shows in his precise yet not excessive descriptions of the surroundings.
Just like his main protagonist Edouard, the author retired to a remote and mountainous part of France not far from where this book takes place. Many of his novels feature retirees moving south and not finding quite the peace and inspiration they had hoped for. However, in this one, there is more love for the location than in most, and the landscape is not claustrophobic. There is even a sense of freedom up on the mountain tops, under an azure sky. We take in the dry, windswept landscapes of the Drome, the imposing grandeur of Lyon and the intimidating order and wealth of Geneva through the eyes of humble Therese and the increasingly forgetful Edouard. For once, none of the characters are entirely appalling or unlikeable, so you will feel a real tinge of sadness for the way the story unfolds.
Subtly subversive, always unsettling, this is another excellent addition to the Garnier series. Sadly, the author died in 2010, so there are no new books forthcoming and only a few more left to be translated in his collection for adults. Gallic Books deserves high praise for introducing this author the English-speaking world and for the company’s commitment to his entire works.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars