UNFORGIVABLE by Philippe Djian

Book Quote:

“Where does that feeling one sometimes gets that life is mocking you come from?”

Book Review:

Review by Guy Savage  (APR 24, 2010)

Betty Blue is one of my all-time favourite French films, and it’s based on the novel by Philippe Djian. So when I heard about Unforgivable from the same author, well I knew this was a book I’d be interested in. The novel which was released in France as Impardonnables, received Le Prix Jean Freustie award in 2009 and is being made into a film by Andre Techine–a French director whose films frequently explore the murky emotional depths of human behaviour.

Unforgivable is narrated by 60-year-old Francis, a famous author who’s beginning to look like a has-been. His latest novel is going nowhere and his much younger wife, real-estate agent Judith is growing increasingly distant. These troubling elements in Francis’s life are superceded, however, by the disappearance of his daughter Alice. Alice, a world-renowned actress has disappeared before, and so at first Francis isn’t overly alarmed by his son-in-law, Roger’s announcement. But when Alice’s disappearance continues into weeks and then months, Francis decides to employ a private detective, a former lover, to find his daughter.

While Unforgivable may sound as though it’s devised along the lines of a detective novel, it’s much more than that. As Francis waits for news of his daughter, he begins to examine his past, and his less-than-stellar behaviour. Years before, Francis had another wife and two daughters, and now as Francis tries to puzzle through Alice’s disappearance, he’s forced to bring up the most unpleasant memories–his infidelity and his role in Alice’s teenage rebellion manifested through hostility and drug-addiction. These are horrible memories, and they offer no escape from his present. Meanwhile Judith seems increasingly distracted, and with the spark gone from their marriage, he’s sure she’s having an affair. Francis juggles caring for his two demanding grandchildren with worry about Alice and questions about Judith’s absences.

The thing that’s so interesting about Unforgivable is that Francis narrates this tale with an unsettling detachment. It’s not that he doesn’t care–he cares quite desperately in fact, but his emotions are not in play for the most part. Francis manages to see his life with an ironic eye and as a tale in which he has a shifting role. Unfaithful husband, patient father, unwilling grandfather and now …cuckold.

Unforgivable seems on the surface to be a deceptively simple novel–a straightforward narrative tale, but the novel addresses the complexity of human behaviour and our ability to deceive ourselves even as we commit Unforgivable acts of betrayal to those we claim to love. Through memories of the past, the tale scrapes away at the elaborate constructions we build. Here’s Francis on avoiding confronting Judith:

“Ten years of marriage had left us both punch-drunk. Strangely groggy. Incapable of explaining lucidly what it was that had happened to us. As if we were anesthetized. We were incapable of expressing it, but we did not pretend to be unaware of it.

She went away quite readily. More and more frequently. It was not uncommon for her to disappear now for several days and I was satisfied with her explanations; I did not seek to know the details of how she spent her time. I was amazed to discover how insurmountable was the wall that stood between us. Looking into one another’s eyes no longer served any purpose. When she set off, I wished her a safe journey. She promised to call me. And she did so—without losing out on her fixed rate of charges, of course.”

While the novel is written with a very straightforward prose style, the tale goes back and forth in time, so attention should be paid as the timeline of events can be easily missed. Unforgivable will appeal to those who enjoy the style of Jean Echenoz or Madeleine Bourdouxhe (La Femme de Gilles). Translated by Euan Cameron.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-5-0from X readers
PUBLISHER: Simon & Schuster (March 9, 2010)
REVIEWER: Guy Savage
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Philippe Djian (in French)
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Along similar lines, perhaps:

Shipwreck by Louis Begley

Partial Bibliography:

Note: Philippe Djian is the renowned author of over twenty novels, including AssassinsFrictionsImpuretés, and the bestseller 37°2 le matin,published in the United States as Betty Blue and adapted for film by Jean-Jacques Beineix.

April 24, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: 2010 Favorites, France, Translated, World Lit, y Award Winning Author

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