Monday, December 21, 2015

Book Review: The Islanders (1998) by Pascal Garnier

This is the fourth Garnier novel for me, and I've come to the conclusion that he's the poltergeist of French literature. Garnier's novels are studies of individuals whose inner demons are kept in check (barely) by the routines, beliefs and ceremonies of middle-class life. Garnier, in his role as a poltergeist, tears apart the delicate web of social respectability and responsibility that keeps his characters on the straight and narrow, and then records what happens to these people when they get off the leash and start barking and biting and killing.

In this novel we have Olivier, a recovering alcoholic, Rodolphe, the world's nastiest blind man, and Jeanne, Olivier's long-ago girlfriend, with whom he shares a murderous secret from their teenage years. Olivier returns to the Paris suburb of Versailles to make funeral arrangements for his deceased mother. Versailles is where he grew up, and it's a place he wholeheartedly detests. Olivier's shocked to find that Jeanne and her brother Rodolphe are living across the hall from his mother's apartment. Olivier and Jeanne haven't seen each other in twenty or so years, but they're almost instantly drawn back to each other. The folie a deux crime for which they were never caught as teenagers was the kidnap and murder of a two-year-old boy. Olivier decides to hit the bottle again, and the bodies start to pile up.

Garnier's plots are spare but smart; he gives his characters a bit of a push in one direction and then, in keeping with the poltergeist metaphor, commences to pinch them, throw things at them, occasionally push them down a long flight of stairs. and otherwise torment them until the worst and truest part of their character is fully revealed. And so it is here. Olivier goes off the wagon for one night and so begins a parade of murders and a trip into madness for the only two characters left standing at the end of the book.

Garnier's artistic inspiration would seem to come from Jean-Paul Sartre's observation in No Exit that "hell is other people." In this novel, as in others by Garnier that I've read, the characters find humanity to be a sorry spectacle, and an excruciating one when having deal one on one with people. A typical Garnier character looks around and describes what he sees and feels using a palette filled with venom-based paints. At times Garnier can go overboard with seeing the world through dystopia-tinted glasses, almost to the point of parody, but his misanthropy is always delivered with a poetic zeal that keeps his novels palatable and energetic rather than dreary and pretentious.

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