A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray by Dominique Barbéris (tr. John Cullen)

This is such a beautiful, evocative novella, as melancholy and atmospheric as a dusky autumn afternoon.

The story takes place in Paris on a Sunday afternoon in September, just at the crossover point between summer and autumn. The narrator – an unnamed woman – drives from the city centre to the Parisian suburb of Ville-d’Avray to visit her married sister, Claire Marie. Right from the start there is a particular ‘feel’ to the sister’s neighbourhood, a quietness and slower pace of life compared to the buzz of the inner city.

As the two sisters sit and chat in the garden, an intimate story emerges, something the two women have never spoken about before. Claire Marie reveals a hidden relationship from her past, a sort of dalliance with a mysterious man named Marc Hermann, whom she met at her husband’s office. Very little seemed to happen between Claire Marie and Marc at the time – they met one another in secret a few times, mostly walking in the local parks and forests – and yet one senses a deep connection between them, despite the somewhat sinister edge.

She was almost sure that he was lying to her about a great many things, but she felt certain that he was alone and that his solitude was complete, so dense that she could perceive the space it occupied around him, and that solitude touched her heart. (p. 103)

At first, the story seems a relatively simple one; but as the narrative progresses, additional layers begin to emerge, enhancing the air of mystery surrounding these characters. There’s a sense of unspoken desire here, of missed opportunities and avenues left unexplored. Both Jane Eyre and Chekhov are referenced in the novella, acting as touchstones for Barbéris’ story. Nevertheless, I don’t want to say too much about what developed between Claire Marie and Marc – in many respects, it’s probably best for readers to discover this for themselves.

What hopes, what expectations remained to her? What could still happen? Would the passing hours simply ‘wound’ her, one by one? (p. 74)

Barbéris excels in capturing the languid feel of a Sunday in the Parisian suburbs – the heaviness in the air; the dusky light as the afternoon slides into the evening; the appearance of raindrops on windows; the vivid colours of the trees with their autumn foliage.

Because the trees in the park were veterans planted long ago, they held up better. Their autumn foliage, with the shiny red, the buttercup yellow, the brilliant russet of certain varieties – exactly the same colour as the dried stems of the chrysanthemums people would leave in pots in cemeteries or decorate crossroads with – made patches of fantastic light when the shadows were settling in. (p. 60)

A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray is a haunting, dreamlike novella – intimate and hypnotic in style. There is a sense of time expanding and then contracting again as Claire Marie recounts her story, a tale that very much reflects her passive, indecisive personality. As the narrator returns home late on Sunday evening, we are almost left wondering whether the afternoon was a dream, with Claire Marie representing an alter-ego of sorts, another side to the narrator’s life. There is an otherworldly aspect to the Ville-d’Avray suburb, a dreamscape that gives the novella an enigmatic feel throughout. Either way, it’s an absorbing read, ideal for a lazy Sunday afternoon as the light begins to fade.

A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publishers and Independent Alliance for a reading copy. (I read this book for Biblibio’s #WITMonth event, which is running throughout August.)

34 thoughts on “A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray by Dominique Barbéris (tr. John Cullen)

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, their list is so interesting. Daunt seem to have been on a roll for the last few years, ever since they published La Femme de Gilles by Madeleine Bourdhouxe. (That was the first of their books I read, and it remains a favourite.) I’ll be interested to see what you think of this one – it’s so strong on atmosphere and mood.

      Reply
  1. gertloveday

    This sounds most appealing; melancholy and evocative sounds right up my alley. I see this author has written several books but this is the first one translated into English. Have to read Les Kangourous..

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, that caught my eye when I looked her up on wiki. Les Kangourous was adapted for the screen by Anne Fontaine, whose later film, the Innocents, I liked very much. I’m hoping that Daunt (or another enterprising publisher) might decide to translate some of Berberis’ earlier work, especially if Sunday does well in translation.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, I noticed that! I like John’s reviews, so it’s great to see that he was very taken with it too. A good day for Barberis and Daunt, especially with it being a Sunday!

          Reply
  2. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    Hi Jacquiwine — lovely review of a lovely book/novella. I read this about mid-July (it was published in the U.S. by Other Press, some months ago I think) and had a reaction very similar to yours, i.e., it was an absorbing, dream-like read, perfect for a quiet afternoon (ideally an autumn Sunday with a misty rain falling gently outside!). I found this to be a very liminal kind of story in that it was set on the boundaries of things: between the seasons of the year (autumn giving way to winter); between day and twilight and the end (Sunday) and beginning of the week; between spaces (city to country); between barriers/walls between sisters and, perhaps, between subjective and objective “truth.”
    I thought the novel’s super realistic descriptions (you can easily visualize the streets the narrator passes through and see the houses and gardens that she sees) actually heightened the sense of myth or fairy tale. Didn’t you almost feel that, when the unnamed younger sister began her Sunday journey to the Ville-d’Avray it was almost as though she were leaving behind a quotidian reality and entering something akin to a different realm, where different rules applied? It’s perhaps a bit silly, but to a certain extent it put me in mind of one of those fairy tale heroines who pass through a dark wood or forest as part of the story.
    I, too, wondered at the end whether Claire Marie might not represent another facet of the narrator. I also found that the place, the Ville-d’Avray, was almost as much of a character as the sisters themselves.
    A minor but interesting visual detail is that the cover of my edition is quite different. It shows a rather engimatic black & white photo, featuring a leafless tree and shadows cast on what appears to be a wall, which really conveys the mood of the novel.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks so much for a fascinating series of comments, particularly about the various ‘boundaries’ or hinterlands conveyed through the novel – that’s a very interesting insight into the world Barberis has created here. Yes, I did think there was a transition of sorts as the narrator leaves her day-to-day life in Paris and enters Ville-d’Avray – it felt like a dreamscape or otherworldly as I described it above, so your comment on it seeming like a different realm, where different rules apply, makes perfect sense. I also felt that transition even more strongly at the end, when the narrator returns home. Without wishing to reveal any spoilers…a couple of sentences on the final page seemed very significant in this respect, especially Luc’s comment on her ‘return’.

      Did you write about it in July! I’ll have to head over to yours to take a look…

      Reply
      1. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

        Dear Jacqui, you must realize that, with me, you’ve encountered the world’s laziest reviewer/poster. I did think about reviewing it (perhaps I might after the impact of your excellent review has faded a bit) but never got around to it! I’ve read scads of interesting translated novels this summer and I AM hoping to do at least one review before August totally escapes me but what’s that about best laid plans etc?
        Not to pressure you or anything, but I do have my fingers crossed that you’ll return to Brookner this fall . . . .

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Ah, I completely understand! Well, it would be lovely to see a post from you on those novels in translation — either a review or a round-up post, whatever you feel like writing. And yes, I am planning to return to Brookner in the autumn, hopefully either September or October depending on how the rest of my reading goes. Fingers crossed… :)

          Reply
          1. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

            Not to belabor my comments or clutter up your blog but I was quite interested in your exchange with Madame B regarding the cover. As I said, it’s quite different from the U.S. version and, I think, strongly suggests the duality (if nothing more) of the sisters (no more about that, I promise!). And, I agree with you regarding the comment from the boyfriend, at the end; it’s quite significant and, I think, strongly supports a certain reading of the novel.
            If you’re interested, check the alternate cover. It doesn’t contain any hints! https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/667107/a-sunday-in-ville-davray-by-dominique-barberis/

            Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              Oh, gosh. That’s completely different – and a surprising choice in some respects because the autumn colours feature so strongly in the novella. As you say, the UK cover reinforces the idea of duality or a split personality, which isn’t referenced at all in the US version. I much prefer the UK one, I have to admit!

              Reply
  3. madamebibilophile

    This sounds stunning Jacqui. The destabilising of the story by making it uncertain who Claire Marie exactly is or represents is an interesting development too. It adds another quality to the dream-like atmosphere you describe. Do you think the cover with the flipped image of the same woman is about Claire Marie and the sister being the same person?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I’ve been wondering about that image on the cover, whether it’s another clue pointing to identity of Marie Claire (i.e. as another side to the narrator’s personality). There are a few hints to this being a potential interpretation at the beginning and the end of the book, particularly around the narrator’s relationship with her boyfriend, Luc. He doesn’t go on the visit to Ville-d’Avray and is largely absent from the book…but even so, he’s there when the narrator returns from the suburbs and something passes between them which feels quite significant. I’d better not say any more, just in case you decide to read the book!

      Reply
  4. Julé Cunningham

    Well, this one went directly on to the TBR, it sounds marvelous though I read your lovely post and the comments with half-shut eyes to not spoil anything. Fortunately as Janakay points out it has been published here by the wonderful indie Other Press.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Lovely! I’m so glad it’s available stateside via Other Press. They also publish Meeting in Positano, which I read earlier this month – another very evocative novel and top choice for WIT Month. I hope you enjoy this one, whenever you get a chance to try it.

      Reply
  5. heavenali

    This sounds beautiful, that dream like quality to narratives like this really appeals to me. There seems to be an ambiguity to Claire Maire which is very intriguing.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think you’d like it, Ali. It’s so strong on atmosphere and mood – a dreamy read for that summer-into-autumn transition as the daylight begins to fade.

      Reply
  6. kaggsysbookishramblings

    What an evocative review, Jacqui, and what a striking cover. Like Madame B, I had wondered about that covers – very suggestive, particularly as the narrator isn’t named and there are hints of this being dreamlike, or Claire Marie being an alter ego. Those quotes are excellent and I like what you say about there being much which is unsaid – intriguing!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the writing is really beautiful. It’s the sort of book you could easily read in a few hours, and yet it feels so immersive – transportive almost, which is a testament to the author’s skill in capturing a particular atmosphere or mood. Intriguing is the word for this one…

      Reply
  7. kimbofo

    You had me at “haunting, dreamlike novella – intimate and hypnotic in style” 😊 I will be adding this one to the wishlist. Thank you for such an enticing review…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      No , I hadn’t seen it before! How interesting…I definitely agree that the novella is more about style and mood than plot. It’s very atmospheric and evocative. And the sense of danger that Barberis talks about in the interview is very apparent in Claire Marie’s relationship with Luc. It’s a flirtation with danger, complete with a sort of tension between intrigue/attraction and knowing she should pull away. I think you’d like it, Grant. It’s almost an autumnal companion to Winter in Sokcho!

      Reply
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  9. Max Cairnduff

    I bought this recently as you know, and I think you capture it very well here (love Janakay’s comments on boundaries and liminality too). I read it in I think two, maybe three sittings and it’s a tremendous mood piece. I’ve not though read Jane Eyre which makes me wonder if I’ve missed some resonances there.

    Anyway, great review and a really interesting book. I hope more Barberis gets translated.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks! I’m so glad you enjoyed it together with the discussion here. Janakay’s comments are really interesting, aren’t they? Very much in line with the dreamlike quality of the book.

      I have read Jane Eyre although it was many, many years ago, so my memories of the details are very sketchy now. It’s definitely relevant to the sisters’ childhood, but as for the rest of the story I’m less sure. I guess I ought to read it again at some point!

      Reply

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