Blue Postcards by Douglas Bruton – #NovNov22

This little book published by Fairlight Moderns came to my attention when it was longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize earlier this year. I wasn’t sure it would be my sort of book but it sounded intriguing and at only 160 pages I knew it would be perfect for Novellas in November.

The book opens in the present day with our unnamed narrator buying a postcard from a Parisian market stall beside the Eiffel Tower. The postcard is completely blue on one side and date stamped 1957. The young woman who sells it to him has no idea of its significance, but the narrator knows exactly what it is: an invitation to an exhibition of the French artist Yves Klein’s monochrome paintings which was held in that year. He takes the card away with him but is drawn back to the stall again and again hoping to find more blue postcards and slowly a relationship begins to develop between the narrator and Michelle, the postcard seller.

Two other narratives are woven into the story. In one, we follow the career of Yves Klein, who becomes famous as the creator of International Klein Blue (IKB), an intense shade of aquamarine. In the other we meet Henri, a Jewish tailor – the only one left on what was once called the Street of Tailors. Henri also has a connection with blue: he sews a blue thread, in a shade known as ‘tekhelet’ in Hebrew, into the leg of every suit he makes in the belief that it will bring good luck to the wearer. One day, Yves Klein visits the tailor to order a suit and so the three separate parts of the novel fit together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

There was something to interest me in each of the three storylines. In the modern day one it was the unreliability of the narrator who admits that some of the things he is telling us didn’t necessarily happen and that memories can change over the years. The most compelling parts of Henri’s story involve his memories of the 1930s when he and his family were victims of the Night of Broken Windows. And I was struck by the descriptions of Klein’s monochrome exhibition where he displayed eleven identical blue (IKB) squares, placed at different angles and priced differently because he argued that the experience of viewing each one was different. I knew nothing about Klein before reading this book and his art is not really the kind I like, but it was good to learn a little bit about him.

What makes this book unusual, however, is the structure – and as I suspected, it wasn’t entirely successful with me! There are five chapters and each chapter is made up of one hundred numbered paragraphs, some only one or two sentences long but all what you could describe as ‘postcard-sized’. The three narratives alternate rapidly throughout the book, so we have one or two paragraphs telling the narrator’s story then one or two telling Henri’s or Yves Klein’s. I found it easy enough to follow but it does feel fragmented and meant I didn’t have time to become invested in one story before switching back to another.

Bruton has also set himself the challenge of including the word ‘blue’ at least once in every single paragraph, so we have characters with blue eyes, clothes with blue ink stains, mussels with blue shells, memories lost in the blue mists of time, and so on. Add to this the narrator’s obsession with finding blue postcards, Klein’s obsession with creating blue artworks and Henri’s obsession with blue threads and I started to feel overwhelmed with blue. There’s no doubt that it’s all very cleverly done and can’t have been an easy book to write, but I personally prefer books that allow me to become fully absorbed in the story without any distractions. I wasn’t the ideal reader for this book, but I knew that before I started and wanted to try it anyway, so I don’t have any complaints!

Have you read anything by Douglas Bruton – or any of the other books in the Fairlight Moderns collection?

I’m counting this book towards Novellas in November hosted by 746 Books and Bookish Beck.

Book #59 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

The Venice Train by Georges Simenon (trans. Ros Schwartz)

This is one of Georges Simenon’s many psychological thrillers, which he described as romans durs or ‘hard novels’. I’ve read two of his others – The Man from London and The Strangers in the House – and have enjoyed both, so was looking forward to reading this one. First published in 1965 as Le Train de Venise, it has just been reissued by Penguin Classics in a new English translation by Ros Schwartz.

The novel begins with Justin Calmar boarding a train in Venice to return to his home in Paris after a family holiday. His wife and two young children will follow in a few days’ time. During the journey, another passenger engages Justin in conversation and he finds himself agreeing to deliver a briefcase to an address in Lausanne when the train stops at the station there. However, things don’t go according to plan and Justin ends up returning to Paris with the case still in his possession. Unable to resist the temptation, he breaks the locks and looks inside…and what he finds there will change his life forever.

I won’t say too much more about the plot because I wouldn’t want to spoil the suspense of wondering what is inside the case and what Justin will decide to do with it. This is a very short book (176 pages in the paperback version) and for the first half, the tension builds and builds. It would have made a perfect Alfred Hitchcock film! It’s not a crime novel, however, so don’t go into it expecting one; the mystery is never fully explained or resolved, it ends abruptly and we are left with lots of unanswered questions. The events on the train are simply a starting point for Simenon to explore the psychological effects on Justin Calmar as he battles with nerves, guilt and paranoia, lying to his wife and his friends and finding that each lie leads to another.

The second half of the book isn’t quite as strong as the first and I do wish we’d had answers to at least some of those questions, but this is a fascinating and compelling story – my favourite by Georges Simenon so far.

Although I was slightly disappointed that only the first few pages of the book are actually set in Venice – the rest either on the train or in Paris – I wasn’t too disappointed because Paris is, of course, a great setting as well. And as Thyme for Tea and Readerbuzz are hosting their annual Paris in July event this month, the timing couldn’t be better!

Thanks to Penguin Classics for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Clockwork Girl by Anna Mazzola

The Clockwork Girl is Anna Mazzola’s third novel and, I think, her best so far. Not only is the cover beautiful, the setting is also wonderfully dark and atmospheric and the story is fascinating.

The year is 1750 and Madeleine Chastel, daughter of a Parisian brothel owner, is about to start a new job as a maid in the household of Dr Reinhart, a Swiss clockmaker. Madeleine is pleased to have an opportunity to escape from her mother’s clutches, but this particular job is not one she has chosen for herself – she has been forced to take it by the chief of police, who wants her to spy on Dr Reinhart and report back on any suspicious activities she witnesses. But although Madeleine soon becomes convinced that the police are correct and something strange is going on in the Reinhart household, she finds that she is growing fond of the clockmaker’s daughter, Veronique, and is reluctant to betray her new friend.

The novel is written from the perspectives of three different characters: Madeleine is one, Veronique is another and the third is Jeanne Poisson, better known as Madame de Pompadour, mistress of King Louis XV. I found the choice of narrators very effective as it means we are given insights into every level of Parisian society – the working class, the bourgeoisie or middle class, and the aristocracy. Our story takes place several decades before the French Revolution would begin, but you can see the foundations being laid here as tensions start to simmer. The various locations in which the novel is set are vividly described, with sharp contrasts between the dark, dirty streets where the poor people live in squalor and the luxury and opulence of the royal palaces of Versailles and the Louvre.

Although The Clockwork Girl is a work of fiction, it is inspired by several real historical events. First, the disappearance of children from the streets of Paris in 1750, a scandal known as ‘The Vanishing Children of Paris’. And secondly, the technological advances during the 18th century in the creation of automata – clockwork dolls, animals and other machines with moving parts. Anna Mazzola weaves both of these things into the plot and the result is an engaging and unusual novel that I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

If this book doesn’t appeal, you may prefer Anna Mazzola’s first book, The Unseeing, based on a true crime (the Edgware Road Murder) or The Story Keeper, a novel set on the Isle of Skye. I enjoyed both of them.

Thanks to Orion for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 9/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles

One aspect of the Second World War that we don’t usually hear much about is the role of books and libraries, so I was immediately drawn to this new novel by Janet Skeslien Charles which tells the story of the American Library in Paris and the people who worked there during the Nazi occupation.

One of the novel’s two main narrators, twenty-year-old Odile, starts working at the library in 1939 at the beginning of the war. With her love of reading and obsession with learning the Dewey Decimal System, it’s Odile’s dream job and she quickly settles in, getting to know the other librarians and the people who come in to borrow books. Her happiness doesn’t last long, however, because soon the Germans cross the Maginot Line and enter Paris. With her twin brother Rémy fighting in the French army, these are difficult and worrying times for Odile, but her priority remains keeping the American Library and its collections safe from the Nazis and ensuring that those less fortunate can continue to find comfort in books.

Our second narrator is Lily, an unhappy twelve-year-old girl growing up in Froid, Montana in the 1980s. She has become intrigued by the reclusive elderly woman who lives next door and when she decides to interview her for a school project, we discover that the woman is Odile. As she gets to know Odile better and uncovers the sequence of events that brought her from Paris to Montana, Lily learns some important lessons that help her to deal with some of the problems in her own life.

There were many things to like about The Paris Library, yet I didn’t really enjoy the book as much as I’d been hoping to. The wartime story was fascinating, but I couldn’t help feeling that the 1980s one was unnecessary; dual timeline novels are very common these days and obviously a lot of people like them, but I often find that one of the two threads is a distraction from the other and adds very little to the novel as a whole. In this case, I felt that Lily’s could have been left out entirely without having much effect on the overall plot. Also, with Lily being such a young narrator, her story revolves around school, her relationships with boys and her best friend, and coming to terms with her widowed father marrying again; it makes the novel feel like YA fiction – which is fine, of course, but not what I was expecting.

I did find all the information on the American Library in Paris very interesting, especially when I discovered that some of the characters in those sections of the book were people who really existed, such as the library director, Dorothy Reeder, who refused to abandon the library when the war began and led the other librarians in a Resistance against the Nazis. I love the fact that the library managed to continue operating throughout the war, in one way or another, with the librarians providing reading material to soldiers and ensuring that books were delivered to Jewish members who were no longer able to visit the library in person.

The Paris Library is worth reading for the wartime storyline, the history and the many references to books I’ve read or would like to read, but if Janet Skeslien Charles had just concentrated on Odile’s story she would have had more space to develop the characters and relationships and I think that would have made it a stronger, more emotional novel.

Thanks to John Murray Press for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Book 5/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Pure by Andrew Miller

Pure This is another book that I’ve read for my Reading the Walter Scott Prize project and another interesting read – though a very dark one.

The story is set in France in 1785, just a few years before the French Revolution. Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young engineer from Normandy, has arrived in Paris commissioned with an important but gruesome task – the destruction of the cemetery of Les Innocents. As the oldest and largest cemetery in the city, Les Innocents has now become overcrowded, smelly and unsanitary. To prevent it becoming even more of a health hazard than it already is, Jean-Baptiste has been given the job of destroying the cemetery and its church, emptying the graves and arranging for reburial elsewhere.

The novel is based on historical fact – Les Innocents really did need to be removed in the 18th century in order to purify the surrounding area and a market place was later built on the site of the old cemetery. However, Jean-Baptiste Baratte is fictional and in Pure Andrew Miller imagines what it may have felt like to be the person responsible for carrying out such an unpleasant and controversial task. Everyone has an opinion on the destruction of the cemetery and as Jean-Baptiste continues his work, he learns just how deeply people feel about it.

During his time in Paris, Jean-Baptiste lodges with the Monnards, whose daughter Ziguette is not at all pleased with the removal of the cemetery she has been able to see from her window all her life. On his first inspection of the church, he meets the organist Armand de Saint-Méard, who will lose his job when the building is demolished. In another building on the site live the sexton and his young granddaughter, Jeanne, both of whom have devoted their lives to Les Innocents. And then there are the men – ex-miners from the mines of Valenciennes – summoned to Paris by Jean-Baptiste to help with the excavations of the graves. All of these people are affected in some way by what is happening and Jean-Baptiste receives both support and opposition.

I enjoyed the first half of this book which deals with Jean-Baptiste’s first days in Paris, getting to know the people in and around the cemetery, and deciding how to proceed with the job he has been given. I loved the portrayal of a young man experiencing life in a big city, so desperate to fit in that he lets his new friends persuade him to exchange his smart brown suit for a pistachio green silk one. France is heading towards Revolution and although this never becomes a big part of the plot, the hints are there in the references towards progress, a group of rebellious young men who call themselves the ‘party of the future’, grafitti daubed on walls, the contrast between the working class and the aristocracy – and a doctor called Guillotin who arrives at the cemetery to study the skeletons.

I’m not sure what went wrong with the second half of the book, but I started to lose interest at the point when the miners arrived in Paris and work on the cemetery began. I had found it interesting to read about the preparations, the inspections that had to be made and what the work would involve, but the descriptions of the actual excavations started to feel repetitive. I was also hoping for more character development, but apart from Jean-Baptiste himself the other characters have very little depth. Two of them commit acts of violence towards the end of the book, yet I didn’t feel that their motivations were fully explored and the consequences of both actions seemed to be resolved too quickly.

Pure is a fascinating novel, especially if you’re interested in historical fiction set in pre-Revolutionary France. I really liked Andrew Miller’s style of writing, but my lack of emotional engagement with the characters and the other problems I’ve mentioned above left me feeling slightly disappointed at the end.

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame Or Notre-Dame de Paris, to give it its original French title and one which is much more appropriate. Quasimodo, the hunchback, has a surprisingly small role in the book while the cathedral of Notre-Dame itself is at the heart of the story, with most of the action taking place within its walls, on top of its towers or in the streets and squares below.

Set in 15th century Paris, the novel follows the stories of three tragic and lonely people. First there’s the beautiful gypsy dancer, La Esmeralda, who captivates everyone she meets with her looks, her dancing and her magic tricks. Alone in the world with only her goat, Djali, for company, she dreams of one day being reunited with her parents. Then there’s Claude Frollo, the Archdeacon, once a good and compassionate man who rescued Quasimodo as a child and raised him as his son. He becomes obsessed with Esmeralda after seeing her dancing in the Place de Grève and descends into a life dominated by lust and envy, turning away from the church and towards black magic. Finally, of course, there’s Quasimodo himself, the bell-ringer of Notre-Dame. Outwardly deformed and ugly, his kind heart and his love for Esmeralda lead him into conflict with his adoptive father, Frollo.

I read Hugo’s Les Miserables almost exactly five years ago and I really don’t know why it has taken me so long to read another of his books. I loved Les Miserables and I loved this one too, though not quite as much; this is a shorter and slightly easier read, but I didn’t find the story as powerful or emotional. It was a good choice for the R.I.P. challenge, though – the atmosphere is very dark and there are plenty of Gothic elements.

At least having had some previous experience of Hugo meant that I knew what to expect from his writing! You need to be prepared for some long diversions and chapter after chapter that has almost nothing to do with the plot or the main characters. Hugo devotes a lot of this novel to discussing Gothic architecture, the structure of the cathedral, the geographical layout of Paris and other topics which may or may not be of interest to the reader. I’m happy to admit that I didn’t read every single word of these sections (in fact, I skipped most of the chapter entitled A Bird’s-Eye View of Paris) and I don’t feel that I missed anything as a result.

The version of the book that I read is not actually the one pictured above (I just wanted a book cover to illustrate my post). I downloaded the free version from Project Gutenberg for my Kindle, which is Isabel F. Hapgood’s 1888 translation. I was very happy with it, but I’m used to reading older books and older translations; depending on your taste you might prefer a more modern translation. And just as a side note, does anyone else love books with imaginative chapter titles? There are some great ones here, including The Inconveniences of Following a Pretty Woman through the Streets in an Evening, The Effect which Seven Oaths in the Open Air Can Produce and The Danger of Confiding One’s Secret to a Goat. Much more intriguing than just numbering them 1, 2, 3!

As I’ve now read Hugo’s two most popular books, can anyone tell me if there are any others that I should read? I like the sound of Ninety-Three and The Man Who Laughs, but are they worth reading?

A Glimpse into 1960s Paris – a guest post by Rachel Hore

It’s not often that I have the chance to introduce a guest post here at She Reads Novels, but today I’m pleased to welcome author Rachel Hore to the blog to tell us about researching 1960s Paris for her new novel A Week in Paris which has been published in the UK this week.

Rachel Hore

Rachel Hore

A GLIMPSE INTO 60s PARIS by Rachel Hore

My new novel, A Week in Paris, opens in 1961, when Fay Knox, a young English violinist, visits the city with her orchestra and learns secrets of her family’s wartime past. What was Paris like at that time and how did I go about researching it?

Reading histories of the period gave me the context. Paris, though glamorous, elegant and romantic, a cradle of new ideas in philosophy and high art, was still socially conservative, France as a whole even more so. In 1958, after a period of unstable government and succeeding crises over the war of independence in Algeria, General de Gaulle was recalled as President and a period of strong rule ensued. It wasn’t until the students’ riots and sit-ins of May 1968 that the young and dispossessed really challenged the aging, authoritarian head of government, and change was finally, if painfully slowly, set in motion.

Boutique off Rue de Rivoli

Boutique off Rue de Rivoli (2014)

In other ways, too, the liberal sixties came late to Paris. A glance at the popular music hits of 1961 reveals months of No.1s for traditional French crooners Edith Piaf and Charles Aznavour, with a young Johnny Hallyday making an appearance with ‘Kili Watch’ and, bizarrely for January, Richard Anthony singing ‘Itsy Bitsy Petit Bikini’. This picture had not changed much by early 1964 when the Beatles played a series of concerts at the Olympia music hall. An interviewer had to ask, ‘What is Beatlemania?’ and there were no girls screaming and fainting. Jazz is still big in this period. On her arrival in the city, Fay spots a poster about the trumpeter Miles Davis playing the Olympia.

Paris Match March 1961

Paris Match March 1961

Guidebooks for 1961 were immensely helpful for my research. The Dolphin Guide to Paris, written for American tourists, was full of black and white photographs of the period; a student jazz band jamming on the quays of the Left Bank of the Seine and haute couture models wearing the latest boxy coats – like Fay’s. My copy of Paris Match magazine featuring film-maker Jean-Luc Godard’s elegantly sexy wife Anna Karina made its way into my narrative, as did the Gateway Guide’s advice to fashion-hunters on a budget to visit Worth, Dior and Schiaparelli’s ’ cheaper ‘boutiques’ or to satisfy themselves with the big department stores, Printemps and Galeries La Fayette.

A Bout de Souffle

Poster of A Bout de Souffle

Much has been written about French film of the time. Fay’s fellow musician Sandra is excited when her French boyfriend holds out the possibility of meeting Alain Delon, the heart-breaker star of 1960’s Purple Noon. In the same year came A Bout de Souffle (Breathless) by Jean-Luc Godard, which with its bold visual style and innovative use of jump cuts was hailed as an important example of French Nouvelle Vague (New Wave). Other practitioners included Francois Truffaut (The 400 Blows) and Alain Resnais (Hiroshima, Mon Amour), both released in 1959. Movies, of course, can be a gift to the novelist conducting research as long as one weighs up their veracity.

A rest from sightseeing

A rest from sightseeing

Research can only take the fiction-writer so far. The trick for me was to recognize when to leave it all behind and to enter instead the world of 1961 Paris I’ve imagined – the world Fay sees and in which she lives and loves. When I could hear her voice I knew that it was time to put the books away.

Text and photos ©Rachel Hore 2014 unless stated otherwise.