Translated by Katherine Gregor — Following up from her 2018 Grand Prix de Littérature prize winning novel, Summer of Reckoning, Marion Brunet brings us a claustrophobic, unsettling and gut-punching new book about a woman and her young son living on the fringes of society in Marseilles.
Vanda has always been a free-spirit, rebellious and someone who doesn’t adhere to society’s standards. Throughout her life she has learned that you the only person you can depend on is yourself –other people will always let you down and ultimately leave. The only constant is her young son, Noé, whom she affectionately calls Limpet.
Noé lives in perpetual fear that his mother will leave him. Even when she goes swimming he is riddled with anxiety and panic, waiting by the water’s edge for her to return. Noé is Vanda’s entire world and even though she often loses her temper with him, he’s all she lives for.
Vanda and Noé get by. Mostly they make do with what they have. Their living conditions are less than desirable. A cramped one-room hut at the edge of the beach, an inaccessible structure when high tide comes up to its door, is their home. With her meagre salary as a cleaner at a psychiatric ward she can’t afford to rent an apartment in town and when asked why they don’t move she cites the proximity to the ocean as their reason for staying. A group of friends often drop by to have a party on the beach and occasionally Vanda brings someone home, although it’s tricky with a small child and limited space.
To some Vanda is damaged goods, someone who doesn’t want to grow old and become a responsible adult like the rest of the world. To Simon, Vanda’s ex-boyfriend, she was crazy and unpredictable, someone he didn’t want to introduce to his mother. A relationship with Vanda would have meant his destruction, his social fall. Fortunately Vanda severed the relationship they had in Tangiers and Simon left for Paris.
Simon prefers everything to be orderly: neat, tidy and resolved. Which is why he’s in a relationship with Chloé, a socialite from a rich family, who represents the life he wants – that of a successful graphic designer living in Paris with a beautiful young wife. However, when Simon’s mother dies he has to return to the town of his birth, the same town where Vanda lives. Simon is ashamed of where he’s from. In comparison to Paris this southern part of France is chaotic and disorganised, but now circumstances may force him to make peace with his origins.
When Chloé joins Simon for the funeral she finds it impossible to hide her disgust at the town where he grew up in and its people. She’s not racist, she claims, but she also remarks that there are Arabs everywhere… The contrast between Simon’s past and present couldn’t be more glaringly obvious.
So everything is set up for Vanda and Simon’s paths cross. After more than seven years apart, Simon decides he wants to be part of Vanda and Noé’s lives, but unwelcome arrival causes unnecessary tension and dislodges the balance they’ve managed to maintain on their own all these years.
Men have always treated Vanda as property they feel entitled to own. She’s had to endure all kinds of abuse because of her sex and her skin-colour, but also because she’s been cast as the stereotypical woman with tattoos who likes sex but not attachments. She has been branded a lesser and disposable person by a discriminatory society. This assumption puts Vanda in dangerous situations which she’s only just been able to escape from unscathed in the past. With Simon’s arrival and his demands, Vanda might just reach breaking point.
The style and setting of Vanda is reminiscent of another French author’s work, Victor Jestin’s Heatwave. Brunet’s novel is also short, but delivers a powerful blow with its simplicity and stripped prose. There’s a sense of frustration, anxiety and anger in Vanda that simmers and builds up to a violent crescendo. This is an author who will leave you feeling unsettled throughout. The volatility is amplified when the staff at the psychiatric hospital start rioting because of their working conditions – we see the tension in Vanda reflected in the society around her and as the situation escalates the question is: can she escape before she causes harm, or is harmed herself?
On the surface Vanda seems an uncomplicated story about a woman’s struggle to fit in and cope with prejudice. She is a strong, resilient woman shaped by her circumstances and a life filled with setbacks, challenges and cruel twists of fate. It’s a story of desperation, the ever-present threat of violence and the longing for a better future across the Mediterranean in Tangiers. Brunet’s depiction of a woman whom society has failed is visceral and heartbreaking. She represents many other women in similar situations which is why it’s such an important and eye-opening read.
Bitter Lemon Press
CFL Rating: 4 Stars