#RivetingReviews: Max Easterman reviews THE READERS’ ROOM by Antoine Laurain

Antoine Laurain will, for me, always be associated with time-shifting and ‘magic’ – as in his previous novels, Vintage 1954 and The President’s Hat. The Readers’ Room, on the face of it, is simply a mystery story … about a mystery story. Of course, as it’s Laurain, it’s in fact anything but simple, and the twists and turns he crams into its 170 pages provide enough blind alleys and red herrings to fill a book twice its size. I thought I’d guessed who’d ‘dunnit’ by page 100, but, oh dear, such hubris!

Violaine Lepage is the hard-nosed editor – ‘There’s no such thing as an undiscovered genius’ – at a prestigious Paris publishing house and presides over a team of manuscript readers: Stéphane – ex-maths teacher, divorcee, nervous breakdown sufferer and successful author; Murielle – a hunter of spelling mistakes and typos, who ‘tracks them with a pleasure that bordered on orgasmic’; Marie – the youngest, a university student writing her thesis on ‘The Written Word or the Inert Vectors of Narration’; and Béatrice – the oldest, who owns the whole of the street she lives in and has her manuscripts read to her by ‘an incredibly well-toned young man in shorts’ … because she’s blind. She’s also the go-to reader for a final imprimatur.

Together, they rank the thousands of hopeful manuscripts submitted to them with a square (‘reject’), a crescent moon (‘possible…’) or a sun (‘publish immediately’). Sugar Flowers, a debut, and a murder mystery by an unknown author, Camille Désencres, whom no one has yet met, gets the sun, the adoration of the critics, and a place on the short list for France’s premier fiction prize, the Prix Goncourt. So far, so good; but then … the story unfolds.

Violaine is involved in an appalling plane accident, spends weeks in a coma and awakes to find, amongst much else, that the author of Sugar Flowers really is unknown. He – or she? – has gone missing, and communicates only by email, and epigrammatically at that: ‘The book has a life of its own outside my control … All debts will be repaid.’ His/her disappearance is now the object of a police investigation. Several murders in western France are disturbingly similar to those described by Désencres. So who is this Elena Ferrante figure? 

Antoine Laurain’s prose style is perfect – and perfectly translated by the Gallic team: each detail in this complex and time-shifted story is laid out with delicate precision; every little incident has a significance that doesn’t become apparent until pages or even chapters later. One of Violaine’s authors, a tarot-card historian and thus almost a Macbethian weird sister, points her towards solutions to some of the unanswered questions (though how reliable is she?); and her psychiatrist helps fill the amnesiac holes left by her coma. But nothing prepares her – or the reader – for the final, chilling outcome. If I have one criticism, it’s that the dénouement seems rather too contrived; but the story is another winner for Laurain. I read it in less than a day and I suspect you will too.

Reviewed by Max Easterman

THE READERS’ ROOM

Written by Antoine Laurain

Translated from the French by Jane Aitken, Emily Boyce & Polly Mackintosh

Published by Gallic (September 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: French Book WeekJuly 2020 – French Book WeekReviews

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