Tag Archives: Gallic Books

The Front Seat Passenger by Pascal Garnier (review)

Last year I read so many good books that I struggled to find places for them all on my end-of-year list. One notable book that didn’t quite make the final cut was Pascal Garnier’s Moon in a Dead Eye. I’m a big fan of this French writer’s blend of surreal humour and sense of affinity for life’s outsiders and losers so I’ve been saving The Front Seat Passenger for a rainy day. Like the other Garnier novellas I’ve read, Passenger is a short, sharp slice of noir – ideal for a spare hour or two.


Passenger’s central character is a forty-year-old man, Fabien, who lives in Paris with his wife, Sylvie. At the beginning of the book, we are introduced to Fabien during a visit to his father’s home. Fabien’s mother, Charlotte, has just died, and the news has hit his father hard even though thirty-five years have slipped by since she walked out on them. Fabien’s father is the silent type – closed to the world, keeping everything inside. Fabien’s early life with his father had felt like ‘living underwater.’

As I read this novella, I couldn’t help thinking that these experiences must have played a formative role in shaping Fabien’s character. As you’ll see in a little while, he’s rather odd. This next quote captures a sense of his childhood:

Fabien was the child of two phantoms, with the absence of one and the silence of the other providing his only experience of family. They had each carved out their own isolated little existence, that was all. (pgs. 14-15, Gallic Books)

On his return to Paris, Fabien learns that Sylvie has been involved in a serious car accident – there is a message on his answerphone urging him to call the hospital in Dijon. But rather than contacting the hospital straightaway, Fabien’s immediate instinct is to ‘light a cigarette and go and smoke it naked by the open window’. He’s convinced that Sylvie is dead, but he doesn’t react as one might expect. There is an absence of emotion (or if it’s there, it’s all out of whack). Here’s his first thought:

Shit…I’m a widower now, a different person. What should I wear? (pg. 21)

It gets worse. Sylvie is dead, and Fabien comes out with a very strange response indeed when asked to identify his wife’s body. Forlani is the police inspector:

Forlani spoke to two men in short white coats. They glanced briefly at Fabien and pulled the handle of a sort of drawer. Sylvie slid out of the wall.

‘Is this your wife?’

‘Yes and no. It’s the first time I’ve seen her dead. I mean, the first time I’ve seen a dead body. It’s not at all like a living person.’ (pg 26)

The inspector informs Fabien that Sylvie did not die alone. She was with a married man who also died in the accident, a man whom the police believe was her lover. This information comes as news to Fabien – he knew his marriage had withered in recent years but he had no inkling of Sylvie’s involvement in any affair. Before leaving the morgue, Fabien deliberately creates a distraction, and while the inspector is out of sight, he makes a note of the dead man’s name and address. The man’s name was Martial Arnoult and he lived in Paris with his wife, Martine.

Fabien seems keen to close the door on his former life with Sylvie, so when his recently-divorced friend, Gilles, invites him to move in it’s a no-brainer. The two men sit around all day smoking weed and playing Lego with Gilles’ son. Three or four weeks slip by and Fabien seems well and truly over the loss of Sylvie. His thoughts have turned to Martine Arnoult, the woman who was married to Sylvie’s lover. The following passage appears at the end of chapter, and it hints at a sense of foreboding, something sinister to come:

When he forced himself to think about Sylvie, like an invalid testing the progress of their convalescence, he felt as if he were looking back at someone else’s memories. Perhaps that was what was meant by ‘turning the page’. The blank whiteness of the new page gave him vertigo. So he began to darken the page by writing: ’Martine Arnoult, 45 Rue Charlot, Paris 3rd.’ (pgs. 44-45)

Fabien decides to keep watch over Martine. He sets out to stalk her, to insert himself into her life in some way, but she remains under the ever-watchful eye of her constant companion and ‘bodyguard’, Madeleine. It isn’t entirely clear why Fabien is following Martine. Revenge appears the most likely motive at first, but then again, perhaps it’s a desire to discover the ‘real’ Martine. She seems so devoid of life and colour ‘like an over- exposed photo’. There must be more to her, some hidden depth to her character:

He hadn’t been able to find out much about Martine, except that she smoked Winston Ultra Lights, was always willing to go where Madeleine wanted her to, had no taste in either clothes or food; in short, that she floated in life like a foetus in formaldehyde. But it was precisely that troubling vacuity that drove Fabien to fixate on her even more. No one could be that insipid; she must have a secret, a hidden source of interest. And why was Madeleine fussing round her like a mother hen with a chick? (pg. 49)

In an effort to get close to Martine and isolate her from the overbearing Madeleine, Fabien follows the pair on holiday to Majorca where he finally gets the opportunity he’s been waiting for. To say any more about the plot would only spoil the surprises to come (and there are quite a few). One of the things I like about this novella (and Garnier in general) is the unpredictability – he’s a writer that keeps his readers guessing. Just when you think you’ve got the denouement all figured out, along comes another twist or turn to add to the meltdown that has gone before.

The Front Seat Passenger is a solid noir. The set-up is very strong, and the ending has that element of craziness that characterises Garnier’s work. There’s the usual darkness, the mordant humour I’ve come to expect from this author. The prose is clean and tight. While I enjoyed Passenger, it does perhaps lack a little of the compassion I’ve noticed in some of his other books. Moon in a Dead Eye and How’s the Pain? remain my favourites of the Garnier novellas I’ve read so far.

Emma (at Book Around the Corner), Guy (at His Futile Preoccupations), Caroline (at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) and MarinaSofia (at Crime Fiction Lover) have also reviewed this novella. In her review, Emma mentions that in France, the book is published under the title La Place du Mort: ‘the deadman’s place/seat’. In France, it is common to refer to the passenger seat as la place du mort. Sitting here as opposed to the driver’s seat comes with a higher risk of death if the car is involved in an accident. The phrase has another meaning: to take the place of a dead man. Both are worth keeping in mind.

The Front Seat Passenger (tr. by Jane Aitken) is published in the UK by Gallic Books. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publisher.

My Books of the Year – 2014

For me, 2014 was a year filled with great books, so much so that I’ve found it difficult to finalise a shortlist for this post. I read 101 books in 2014 – that’s probably too many although it does include several novellas – and very few turned out to be duds. My first pass at a shortlist came out at 24 books, but I’ve cut it down to thirteen, a baker’s dozen of favourites from my year of reading. These are the books I loved, the books that stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to revisit one day.


I’ve listed my picks in the order I read and reviewed them. I’ve summarised each one, but you can click on the links should you wish to read the full reviews.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (tr. by Ann Goldstein)

2014 was the year of #FerranteFever, and I ended up reading four books by this author: the first three in Ferrante’s series of Neapolitan novels and a standalone novel, The Days of Abandonment. It came down to a choice between the ferocity of Days and the breadth and scope of the Neapolitans. I’ve plumped for the latter and the first book in the series, My Brilliant Friend, which remains my favourite of the three. Set in Naples in the 1950s, it follows the friendship between two girls, Elena and Lila, and the different paths they take to escape the neighbourhood. A compelling story that captures the changing dynamics of the relationship between these two girls.

The Infatuations by Javier Marías (tr. by Margaret Jull Costa)

This was a reread for the 2014 IFFP-shadowing project chaired by Stu, and it’s the book that prompted me to start my own blog. (Stu published my review as a guest post at Winstonsdad’s.)

A man is stabbed to death in the street, but this novel offers much more than a conventional murder mystery. In Marías’s hands, the story becomes a meditation touching on questions of truth, chance, love and mortality. The writing is wonderful – philosophical, reflective, almost hypnotic in style. The Infatuations is my favourite novel from our IFFP-shadow shortlist, with Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s The Sorrow of Angels a close second.

Nada by Carmen Laforet (tr. by Edith Grossman)

Carmen Laforet was twenty-three when Nada, her debut novel, was published. It’s an amazing book, dark and twisted with a distinctive first-person narrative. A portrayal of a family bruised by bitterness and suspicion, struggling to survive in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. A wonderfully evocative novel, a mood-piece that captures the passion and intensity of its time and setting.

Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas (tr. by Anne McLean)

An account of the two years Vila-Matas spent in Paris as a young and aspiring writer trying to emulate his idol, Ernest Hemingway. This is a smart, playful and utterly engaging piece of meta-fiction, full of self-deprecating humour and charm. Marguerite Duras makes an appearance too as Vila-Matas ends up lodging in a filthy garret at the top of her house. Huge fun and a favourite read from Spanish Lit Month.

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

This novel charts a deep friendship between two American couples over forty years. The story explores how these four friends cope with the challenges and setbacks they face during their lives; their struggles are the stuff of our everyday existence, but no less important or significant as a result. It’s an exceptional book – eloquent, graceful, wise and deeply moving. Stegner’s prose is simply wonderful.

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

I loved this novel of life in a seedy English boarding house set in the grim winter of 1943. A spinster in her late thirties is trapped in a ‘death-in-life’ existence and subjected to petty bullying by the ghastly Mr Thwaites. The characters are pin-sharp, and Hamilton has a brilliant for dialogue. A dark tragicomedy of manners, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker

Cassandra, a graduate student at Berkeley, drives home to her family’s ranch for the wedding of her identical twin sister, Judith, where she seems all set to derail the proceedings. This is a brilliant novel featuring one of my favourite women in literature. If you like complex characters with plenty of light and shade, this is the novel for you. Cassandra is intelligent, precise and at times witty, charming and loving. But she can also be manipulative, reckless, domineering, self-absorbed and cruel.  She’s a bundle of contradictions and behaves abominably at times, and yet she has my sympathies.

Where There’s Love, There’s Hate by Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo (tr. by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Ernst Powell)

This delightful novella is a playful take on the traditional country-house murder mystery where everyone’s a suspect. There is much to enjoy: the wit and charm of the writing; the eccentricities of the rather pedantic narrator; the playful nature of the narrative; the murder mystery at its heart. This is a book that never takes itself too seriously as it gently pokes fun at the mystery genre. A favourite read for Richard’s celebration of Argentinian lit.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Set in New York in the later 19th Century, this novel features Lily Bart, who at the age of twenty-nine remains unmarried despite her beauty. Lilly knows she must net a wealthy husband to safeguard her place in society and the lifestyle to which she has become accustomed, but she wants to marry for love and money. Lily is a fascinating character: complex, nuanced and fully realised. A great novel, fully deserving of its status as a classic.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (tr. by Brian Murdoch)

Narrated by an eighteen-year-old German soldier fighting in WWI, this is a searing portrait of the suffering, desolation and futility of war. There is, however, a sense of universality to this story. The narrator could be any one of the terrified young soldiers sent to the front, desperately trying to get from one day to the next, never knowing what the future might bring. A deeply affecting novel, beautifully written; I wish I had read it many years ago.

Transit by Anna Seghers (tr. by Margot Bettauer Dembo)

A novel inspired by Seghers’ own experience as a refugee fleeing from Europe following the German invasion of France in 1940. Transit gives an insight into the bureaucratic maze and red tape involved in securing a safe passage from Marseille. It’s a haunting and unforgettable story with questions of shifting identity and destiny at its heart. Another standout read from Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

On one level, H is for Hawk is the story of how Macdonald attempts to deal with grief by training a goshawk following the death of her father. On another, it captures a biography of the novelist T.H White and his misguided attempts to train his own hawk. The writing is excellent: vivid and evocative in its description of landscape and nature, informative and engaging on falconry and White. This is an intelligent, multi-layered and humane book. An emotional but thoroughly rewarding read for me, I had to pick the right time for this one.

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

A great novel featuring two mismatched couples, the Ashburnhams and the Dowells, The Good Soldier is a story of intrigues, betrayals and duplicity. It tells of the consequences of reigning in desires and of the damage caused when these desires are unleashed. As the narrator, John Dowell, tries to make sense of events, we’re left questioning his reliability. A fascinating book, superbly written. Each of the main characters is flawed or damaged in some way, and my impressions changed as I continued to read. One to revisit at some stage.

Also noteworthy (these are the books I agonised over): Bullfight by Yasushi Inoue; Speedboat by Renata Adler; The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald; Severina by Rodrigo Rey Rosa and Moon in a Dead Eye by Pascal Garnier.

So there we go, my favourite books from a year of reading and eight months of blogging – better late than never. Wishing you all the best for 2015, may it be filled with many wonderful books.

Moon in a Dead Eye by Pascal Garnier (review)

Having enjoyed the slightly surreal dark humour of a couple of Pascal Garnier’s other books, The A26 and How’s the Pain?, I was keen to read more by this author. And when I saw Guy Savage’s review of Moon in a Dead Eye, I knew I had to try this one.


Moon in a Dead Eye is set in Les Conviviales, a secure gated community in the South of France. In the opening pages of this novella, we meet Martial and Odette Sudre, recent arrivals at the community lured there by the promise of ‘a fresh approach to retirement’, activities at the village clubhouse and a life in the sunshine. Trouble is, as the first residents to move into Les Conviviales, Martial and Odette find themselves rattling around with little to occupy their rain-soaked days. The only other occupant is Monsieur Flesh, the rather creepy caretaker-manager. In fact, the whole place has the eerie atmosphere of a graveyard, a mood augmented by the clinical, almost sanitised feel inside the couple’s bungalow:

Everything had that box-fresh, plastic smell. Fair enough, it was practical, everything worked as it should, but it was like living in a hotel. (pg. 8, Gallic Books)

Through the window, the row of TV aerials stretched off into the distance like crosses in the cemetery. We’ve bought ourselves a plot to lie in(pg. 11)

Martial was none too keen to move in the first place, but now they’re here, Odette is determined to make the best of things. She furnishes their bungalow with all manner of mismatched tat and yearns to find new hobbies, ‘anything as long as it’s new!’

A month or so slips by, and finally another retired couple – Maxime and Marlène Node – arrive at Les Conviviales and the Sudres are dying to make their acquaintance:

Madame Node’s girlish figure appeared at the end of the hallway, but as she walked the few steps to the door with her hand outstretched before her, she gained the full weight of her years. She was still slim and trim, but the spots on her skin (which seemed to have undergone a facelift or two) made her look like a withered reinette apple.

‘Oh, how kind of you to come! Marlène. How do you do?’

It was extraordinary how Maxime Node could talk whilst still displaying his dazzling array of teeth. (pg. 17)

The Nodes have come to this gated community for a variety of reasons: a decline in Maxime’s health despite his deluded belief that he still looks pretty dashing for a man of his age; an increase in crime and burglaries in the Node’s Orléans neighbourhood; a sense of feeling under threat in their own home.

At first, the two couples gossip about one another behind their backs. The Sudres consider the Nodes showy, while Maxime cannot imagine himself seeing in the New Year with the Sudres – they’re just not his type of people:

‘Not likely! And as for socks with sandals, dear God!’ (pg. 24)

But seeing as they’re the only residents in this enclave, the two couples form an attachment, and soon they’re running errands for one another and socialising together.

Into this mix comes Léa, a single woman, another retiree; she’s friendly, unassuming and attractive, and it’s not long before Maxime – who has form in this area – makes a play for her with hilarious results.

In Moon in a Dead Eye, Garnier explores our sense of paranoia as a society, particularly that which exists amongst the middle-classes. Maxime seems paranoid about many things: growing old; the criminals or ‘vermin’ who gnawed away at his and Marlène’s nice life in Orléans. And here, inside the bubble of Les Conviviales, Maxime wonders if the residents are under surveillance. After all, those CCTV cameras are everywhere:

They weren’t exactly fighting for space at the pool. In fact, it was starting to feel a bit weird, all the empty houses. Maxime had joked about it the other night.

‘What if they’re watching us, like guinea pigs in a lab? They could secretly be filming us and studying us like rats…’

‘Why us? There’s nothing out of the ordinary about us. We’re just normal people.’ (pg.44)

Garnier augments the slightly sinister tone of this novella with little touches, such as these lines strategically planted at the end of a chapter:

An ant emerged from between two flagstones. Knitting its antennae together, it seemed to ponder which way to go. Marlène crushed it under her foot. (pg. 26)

And the author steps it up a notch when a group of gypsies arrives and set up camp down the road from the gated community. Maxime’s phobias magnify and he’s convinced the gypsies are all set to invade Les Conviviales:

‘You obviously don’t know much about gypsies. They’re masters of disguise. You don’t see them, you think everything’s peachy and then, bam! You end up with a knife in your back.’

‘That’s a bit over the top, Maxime.’

‘Not at all, Odette! I served in the war; I know a thing or two about ambush…’

‘You fought against the gypsies, did you?’

‘No, of course not! But they’re all the same…’

‘Who’s all the same?’

‘Other people! The ones who are out to get us and take our things! Oh for Christ’s sake, forget it. If you’d rather shut your eyes to it and let them cut your throat while you sleep, that’s your problem.’ (pg. 72)

These passages illustrate Maxime’s lack of tolerance with ‘other people,’ anyone he considers beneath him or threatening in some way. Anyone who isn’t ‘normal.’  Life inside the hermetically sealed bubble of the gated community simply accentuates these feelings. Moreover, the emptiness and deserted state of the village reflects the disappointments, regrets and missed opportunities in the occupants’ lives – each character looks back on these moments at certain points in the narrative. It’s as if they’re simply existing. Waiting. Caught in an airless trap:

‘…Right from day one, I’ve felt like I was living under a bell jar here – do you know what I mean?’

‘Absolutely. A big glass cloche, like the ones you put over melons.

‘Exactly…a glass trap.’ (pg.103)

Garnier has a great deal of ruthless fun with this set-up. Moon in a Dead Eye is a terrific little novella, shot through with wicked humour at the expense of this ill-fated bunch of characters. There is much darkness here too; almost a sense of Garnier prodding his characters as he waits for everything to kick off. The ending is spectacular and brilliantly surreal, and I didn’t see the exact nature of it coming (even though I had a sense of what to expect based on the other Garniers I’ve read). In his review, Guy drew the comparison between Garnier and Jean-Patrick Manchette, and I can see the similarities. Reading Moon in a Dead Eye, I’m reminded of Manchette’s sideswipes at bourgeois society in Fatale. And for some reason, I’m also reminded of Adam Curtis’ documentary series The Power of Nightmares in the sense of how fear of a phantom enemy can breed paranoia causing us to exaggerate threats that have little grounding in reality, the consequences of which can be colossal.

Moon is a Dead Eye is my favourite Garnier so far. Highly recommended if you like this type of thing (which I do).

Moon in a Dead Eye (tr. by Emily Boyce) is published in the UK by Gallic Books. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publisher.

Nagasaki by Éric Faye, tr. by Emily Boyce

Shimura Kobo, an unmarried man in his mid-fifties, lives alone in a quiet suburb of Nagasaki. He’s a loner who prefers his own company to socialising with colleagues after work. He values order and routine in his life, too, leaving for work at the same time each morning and eating dinner ‘at a reasonable hour: never later than 6.30pm’. Perhaps he would live a more spontaneous, more fulfilling life if he were married? But sadly this is not the case.


Shimura’s life seems to be slipping quietly by without incident. But then he begins to notice small changes within his home. A few items of food seem to have disappeared from his fridge: some fish he’s sure he bought; the occasional pot of yogurt here and there. At first, Shimura doubts himself and puts it all down to tiredness and a lapse in memory. But he’s a precise man, one who analyses meteorological charts for a living, and he sets about gathering evidence by keeping a log. It’s not long before he discovers that someone appears to be helping themselves to his fruit juice. As he has no partner and his family seldom visit, he’s baffled and rather unsettled by these little disturbances to his retreat.  It’s all somewhat disquieting for him:

I remained mystified and no closer to an explanation. I was rattled. The inside of my fridge was, in a sense, the ever-changing source of my future: the molecules that would provide me with energy in the coming days were contained within it in the form of aubergines, mango juice and whatever else. Tomorrow’s microbes, toxins and proteins awaited me in that cold antechamber, and the thought of a stranger’s hand taking from it at random and putting my future self in jeopardy shook me to the core. Worse: it repulsed me. It was nothing short of a kind of violation. (Gallic Books)

In an attempt to get to the bottom of this mystery, Shimura decides to install a webcam in his kitchen, an action that exposes the emptiness of his life:

From inside the glass cabinet where I had installed it, the camera unveiled a chilling picture of my solitude which made me shiver if I dwelt on it.

As Shimura sits in his office with one eye on his kitchen via the webcam, he questions himself. Was that object in a slightly different position earlier? Or is he imaging things as his mind plays tricks on him?

Hadn’t the bottle of water been slightly closer to the sink earlier on? A matter of fifteen or twenty centimetres, it seemed to me. No sooner had I convinced myself of this than I changed my mind again. You’re making things up, trying to rationalise your unconscious thoughts. For that matter, are you really sure those yogurts disappeared after all? You should report it, you know, go to the police: I’ve had three pots of yogurt stolen in the last few months. Come on now, calm down. Lately, you’ve been all on edge.

Nagasaki is a spare, yet skilfully-crafted and haunting novella. The mystery of the missing food is solved at a fairly early stage, at which point the narrative shifts to show us two different perspectives. Firstly, we get a glimpse of how events affect Shimura as the experience prompts him to reflect on his situation, his loneliness and the disappointments in his life. The ‘barren aridity’ of his existence has ‘suddenly been revealed for all to see’ and he knows he will never be quite the same person again. Secondly, we learn more about the underlying story behind the puzzle of the unsettling occurrences in our protagonist’s home. These two narrative strands are thought-provoking and leave the reader with much to ponder, both about the characters’ lives and broader questions about the society in which we live.

While Faye’s novella can be easily read in one sitting, I started it late one evening and only had time to get to the halfway point before needing to take a break for dinner. The rather disquieting nature of events in the first half had me studying the fridge for signs of disturbance or missing items and double-checking the door and window locks! And it’s all the more unsettling (and distressing) to know that this excellent novella is based on a true story reported in Japan in 2008 (as noted in the introduction).

My thanks to fellow bloggers Claire McAlpine, Stu at Winstonsdad’s and Tony Malone, all of whom recommended this book – if you’d like to read their reviews of Nagasaki, just click on the links.

Nagasaki is published in the UK by Gallic Books. Source: personal copy.