In his latest book, The Stranger in the Seine, faultlessly translated from the French by Rosie Eyre, Guillaume Musso takes the reader on a surprising journey full of apparently unrelated ideas, and creates a mystery that becomes murkier and darker as the book progresses, and changes from an unusual police procedural to a search for identity. As the novel’s heroine battles personal dilemmas and as her moral compass is shaken by the social upheaval in her country, the strong characterisation and the complex connections between the key players make for an intriguing plot that includes both ordinary police work and enigmatic artistic souls.
Captain Roxane Montchrestien ‘had always lived for her job, yet now she found herself incapable of doing it properly’. Disillusioned with ‘Paris: a city cankered by filth and apathy, crusted in pollution and endless miseries’, and demoted for misconduct or some other serious reason that remains unexplained, she is moved to BUA, the Bureau of Unconventional Affairs, which has been set up to investigate anything relating to the paranormal. She reluctantly takes over from Superintendent Marc Batailley, who has suffered a massive heart attack, or so it seems, and plunges into professional and personal despair.
Her experiences in the French police, dealing with street violence, has not prepared Roxane for tackling esoteric matters such as hauntings and telekinesis. Yet her impatience and the lack of any actual assignment propels her to begin her own unofficial investigation into the case of The Stranger. Shortly before Christmas a young, naked woman was saved from the freezing waters of the Seine. She was barely alive, had amnesia, and soon after being taken to the hospital, disappeared. Her DNA sample matches that of a famous German concert pianist, Milena Bergman, who died more than a year earlier in a plane crash. While Milena’s survival is clearly impossible, scientific testing seems to show it isn’t.
Roxane’s slow progress on the case leads her to elusive writer Raphaël Batailley, Milena’s ex-boyfriend and Superintendent Batailley’s son, a man hiding from spotlight, focused on writing and haunted by the untimely death of his younger sister – a man with a ‘compulsion to flee reality’.
Greek mythology features prominently, including a modern version of the cult of the Greek god Dionysus, and things become very bizarre as Roxane attempts to fathom out the links between the dead and the living. But various literary references and the interpretations of famous works, open up new investigative possibilities. There are nods to alternative theatre, contemporary popular culture (for example TV series Emily in Paris), and symbolism, and musings about social media, all of which add to the otherworldly atmosphere of the novel and maintain the tension. The pieces of the puzzle seem to move around unpredictably, but when all the elements finally fall into place, The Stranger in the Seine delivers a satisfying criminal and intellectual surprise.
Reviewed by Ewa Sherman
THE STRANGER IN THE SEINE
by Guillaume Musso
Translated by Rosie Eyre
Published by W&N (2023)
September 2023 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.
Ewa Sherman is a writer, translator and critic. She studied Polish Literature and Language, and Law, and worked with the Polish media. She’s translated several books of sonnets written by her mother Krystyna Konecka from Polish to English.
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