When I first picked up Real Life, the debut novel by Belgian author Adeline Dieudonné, now available in a wonderful English translation by Roland Glasser, it immediately made a big impression on me. Dieudonné’s debut has been awarded at least seven prizes in France and Belgium, and the atmospheric cover on the English edition drew me in straight away. I couldn’t wait to dive in.
Dieudonné does not disappoint. Her protagonist and narrator is an unnamed girl, about ten at the start of the book, who is growing up under the stern eye of her violently abusive father and her terrified mother – whom the narrator often refers to as an ‘amoeba’ – living in fear of his temper and the animal carcasses he collects on his hunting trips. When the narrator and her younger brother Sam witness the tragic death of the local ice-cream man, Sam retreats into himself, able only to express himself and his emotions by killing and torturing animals. The narrator, desperate to save Sam and bring back the smiley brother she loved so dearly, embarks on a mission to go back in time and stop the ice-cream man from dying.
Real Life is a fascinating, if somewhat harrowing coming-of-age story. Already struggling to cope with her unpredictable father and traumatised brother, the narrator has to try and find her own path in life to avoid ending up like her mother. Fiercely intelligent and desperate to make something of herself, she takes secret science lessons with a local professor. Her character is expertly developed as the book goes on, as she shows increasing academic talent and an endless thirst for knowledge. At the same time, she becomes aware of the changes her body is going through, the unwanted attention this attracts and the danger of becoming her father’s next punching bag. She tries her best to find joy in the world around her, making friends with her neighbours, starting to work as a local babysitter, and caring for her beloved puppy Dovka.
‘I loved the perfect indifference of nature. Whatever was going on with me, nature pursued its precise plan for survival and reproduction. My father would knock my mother around and the birds didn’t give a damn. I found that comforting. They continued chirping, the trees creaked, and the wind sang through the leaves of the sweet chestnut. I was nothing to them.’
The pace is unrelenting. I devoured the book, and when the narrator’s father finally put a target on her back, I was almost holding my breath from the tension. The only downside was the scene-setting, which I found quite difficult to place. Occasionally there was a sign pointing to Belgium, but a lot of the time I felt they must be somewhere in rural America, and I was occasionally jarred out of the story to try and work out where it should be set. But all in all, Real Life is a chilling debut by a talented author who is definitely one to watch. A cracking read.
Reviewed by Alyson Coombes
Written by Adeline Dieudonné
Translated from the French by Roland Glasser
Published by World Editions (February 2019)
Alyson Coombes is a freelance translator, editor and book blogger (fromcovertocover.co.uk). Her co-translation Eichmann’s Executioner by Astrid Dehe and Achim Engstler was published in 2017 by The New Press. She works with New Books in German, the European Literature Network and other initiatives to help find and promote the best contemporary European literature in the UK.
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