#RivetingReviews: Max Easterman reviews SUMMER OF RECKONING by Marion Brunet

Marion Brunet is one of France’s best-known writers for young adults; this is her first novel for a general adult readership, but the issues it raises are very much those of young people – young people pretty much anywhere. What makes it such a compelling read, though, is the setting: Luberon, the Avignon area, more precisely the less attractive town of Cavaillon on the Durance river, a town without the luxurious villas of holiday brochures, a town of cheap houses and boredom: ‘… here, boredom is an art form, almost a life art …’ Over everything hangs the oppressive atmosphere of a Provençal summer – beautifully translated by Katherine Gregor: the blinding sunlight, the stickiness, the windless, shimmering heat all seep into your brain and your bones from the pages of this relentless, discomfiting story of two sisters with very different outlooks and prospects; of a dysfunctional family; of inter-racial tension and collapsing friendships. 

Céline is beautiful, popular … and sexually aware beyond her years. 

‘At fourteen … her triumphant breasts already heralded a bright future … [she] took advantage of this, since she couldn’t see anything beyond her talent for attracting men.’ 

Her sister, Jo, is a year younger, with quite another view of her world: she has 

‘… odd eyes … one green, one blue … old people saw ill omens … and her peers a strangeness which pigeonholed her. Maybe … it’s this strangeness that forces her to look elsewhere, to want to escape.’ 

At sixteen, Céline’s ‘bright future’ turns out to be pregnancy – by whom she refuses to say. Their mother, Séverine, sees her own life in replay: she too was a teenager when Manuel, their father, got her pregnant and her happy adolescence vanished in a blizzard of regrets. 

‘She wishes she was living … in a huge city, where nobody would know she’s about to become a grandmother at thirty-four … a gigantic city where she would never have grown up … a city where she wouldn’t have marked every bench and every wall with the insolence of her youth.’ 

Manuel is devastated by Céline’s pregnancy, hypocritical in his anger, which is exacerbated by his father-in-law’s continual contempt for him and for what he did, and frustrated by his dead-end job building the villas of the rich, which he tries to escape through drink. Céline’s refusal to name the father only fuels his alcoholic paranoia: 

‘It’s obvious everybody’s been talking about the girl … Manuel imagines them laughing at him behind his back … [he] sees eyes and laughter everywhere and an insult in every kindness.’ 

He imagines every man who knows about it is the one who impregnated her. But, above all, his suspicions turn to Saïd. Saïd is eighteen, an Arab, and a small-time wheeler-dealer. Moreover, Saïd is a long-term schoolfriend of both Céline and Jo; he’s always hanging around them and he fits Manuel’s small-town prejudice of who the putative father would be. Egged on by his workmate Patrick, Manuel’s suspicions crystallise into certainty, and the stage is set for events that will change the lives of them all. 

This novel is pervaded by a brooding sense of betrayal and unfulfillment, of sadness and revenge for the harsh realities of provincial French life, of the desperation of people forever looking for the main chance, but never finding it. Once you’ve read Summer of Reckoning, Provence will never seem the same again.

Reviewed by Max Easterman

SUMMER OF RECKONING

Written by Marion Brunet

Translated from the French by Katherine Gregor

Published by Bitter Lemon Press (2020)


Max Easterman is a journalist – he spent 25 years as a senior broadcaster with the BBC – university  lecturer, translator, media trainer with ‘Sounds Right’, jazz musician and writer.

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Category: February 2020Reviews

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