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Hélène Grémillon – The Confidant

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What happens when no one is telling the truth about how they feel?

Publisher: Gallic Books
Pages: 253
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-908313-29-4
First Published: 12th September 2012
Date Reviewed: 30th September 2012
Rating: 4.5/5

Original language: French
Original title: Le Confident (The Confidant)
Translated by: Alison Anderson

Upon the death of her mother, editor Camille starts receiving letters from a sender who only gives his first name. Believing the letters to be a clever method of mailing a novel, Camille does not realise for a while that the correspondence relates to her own life. The story of lovers split by outside events and other people, of babies conceived for questionable reasons, and of the hatred of everyone for everyone else, does not register as real until Camille finds proof of its relevance. The meaning of the words is catastrophic, and it seems the sender is the only one who knew the truth. Until now.

The Confidant, translated from the French by Alison Anderson, is a story about how selfishness, and misplaced belief and love, can become so twisted around each other that they leave truth to be confined to the mind – never spoken, with dire consequences. Set against the backdrop of the German invasion of France during World War 2, the factual history included weaves its way into the narrative to create situations that further destroy the humanity of the characters.

And like all stories with a similar narrative – in the way that it feels, the atmosphere, the confusion – it may be difficult to enjoy the book in the usual sense. In regards to the characters, it is difficult to be impressed by a group consisting of a sexual pervert, an obsessed and allegedly dangerous childless woman, and a younger woman who appears to lie to everyone. These aspects take a while to become apparent, but they may be difficult to comprehend when they do. What is interesting, however, is the way one may question their opinion of Camille as the book continues.

The book is told using a series of letters – all sent by Louis but formed of both his words and the words of others – as well as the thoughts of Camille as she comes to the end of each instalment of the story. The formatting is a little unorthodox, the use of a typeface generally spurned by the publishing industry, but it has the interesting affect of not only ensuring the reader knows who they are listening to but of actually adding to the atmosphere; Camille, is incoherent at times, her world a confusion to herself. Indeed the first couple of pages are so peculiar in their written style that you could easily believe Anderson’s translation poor, were it not for the elegance of the rest of the book.

The book is actually rather short, due to both page count and the easy-to-read nature of the text. But Grémillon makes the most of what she has – everything included is important, there are no “filler” events and there is no feeling that the book would have been better served by additions. The narrative gets right into the action, Camille provides a brief but sufficient background, and whilst Louis rushes on occasion it is not a drawback. It is a very welcome style in a world where books continue unnecessarily.

One ought not to feel disappointed by the predictability of the tale, indeed if you read the blurb you will know a lot, and the reason is that Grémillon wishes to explore her topics with a reader who will know, confidently, what she is talking about.

And if the most obvious theme is cause and affect, then the major theme is surrogacy (this comes to light as the major theme in part due to the acknowledgements in the back of the book). Being infertile in the 1930s and 1940s was of course nothing like it is today with all the advancements we have made both technologically and socially. Grémillon shows how society placed such a role in the expected life of a woman, and how it could affect those women who did not live up to the standard set. Due to the narrative structure, and the way in which the author divulges the characters’ beliefs and thoughts, the suggested routes to happiness are laid bare, often with the consequence of creating burdensome personalities. Grémillon portrays the historical infertile woman in the extreme – which creates some of the gross horror in the book – as well as discussing surrogacy in more simple terms. And to a great extent her discussion is relevant today, highlighting the issues that can surround a woman who agrees to carry a child for another without the experience of knowing how such an occasion will make them feel.

It is impossible to retain the same opinions one had at the beginning of the novel once the end has been reached, such is the fine decision Grémillon made to explain the story from different angles. The book does require diligent attention but it rewards with clarity and confirmation. And in addition it also provides a basic knowledge of the lives of the French in German-occupied Paris, which describes in subtext, if not always via direct experience (of the characters), the martial law of the time.

When I try to understand the reasons behind the whole tragedy, I always come to the same conclusion: if Annie had not been passionate about painting, none of this would ever have happened. I am as certain of this as are those who maintain that if Hitler had not failed his entrance exam to art school the world would have been a better place.

It may not be easy to like what happens in The Confidant but that is not the point and Grémillon is not worried if you feel that way. What matters is the subject at hand, the details imparted, and in that the book has surely succeeded in its conquest.

The Confidant was originally written in French, and was translated into English by Alison Anderson.

I received this book for review from ED Public Relations.

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October 3, 2012, 4:48 am

This sounds short, but powerful. Wonderful review too!


October 3, 2012, 9:19 am

Not a book I think I would have ever picked up by myself. Sounds like a comfort zone breaker, but sometimes it is good to step out of your comfort zone. Thanks for sharing.


October 3, 2012, 11:08 am

A book that does not depend on fillers but rather tells it like it is, offering the “bare” story, is rather refreshing!

The format of the book: divulging a secret history by correspondence, seems like a good way to deal with such a serious topic.

Great review, Charlie!


October 3, 2012, 4:54 pm

Oooh — I need! This sounds dark but very good — and I don’t mind a short, punchy kind of novel now and then!


October 4, 2012, 11:03 am

Jennifer: Yes, packs quite a punch. Thank you!

Jessica: Here too, I think if I’d seen it in a shop I would’ve liked the cover but wondered about the subject (because even without detailed knowledge you can guess how problematic it would be in the time period).

Tze-Wen: Is it refreshing, there is literally no time for the author to ramble or create sub-plots. I hadn’t thought of the format in that way, but you’re right, it’s very fitting. And there’s a telegram included too – that’s a really good thought you’ve had!

Audra: It is incredibly dark, and what’s great/scary, both, is that you think it’ll be okay if a little angsty, and then it really throws it at you, some horrible things.



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