#RivetingReviews: Max Easterman reviews RED IS MY HEART by Antoine Laurain and Le Sonneur

Antoine Laurain is, amongst much else, a master of the ‘time-shift’ novel (The Readers’ Room, Vintage 1954). However, Red Is My Heart is different: time is of the essence here, but it’s a stream-of-consciousness time, a time of emptiness, confusion, angst, bereavement, and of coming to terms with the loss of a loved one. It is different also because it’s part novella and part graphic novella with, literally, dozens of simple yet striking, wordless cartoon-style illustrations in red, black and white by Le Sonneur, an artist whose regular beat is telling the story of Paris and its people.

This story is in itself straightforward enough: the writer has been unceremoniously dumped by his lover of some years who’s met someone else. In his grief and distraction, he writes her a letter … but then, unable to bring himself to write her address, he sends without her name to an invented address, all the while wondering how the postal service will deal with this: ‘Is there a procedure for letters with neither recipient nor sender? How long until the letter is destroyed … in a wastepaper basket or a shredder?’     Then, to alter his concept of time, he changes his watch so, ‘you will be far away, in another time zone. A zone that is … at the back of a dark drawer’. He can’t send his lover flowers, so he sends a bouquet to a woman who lived in the building next to his and was murdered in 1889 – something he discovers in the dark watches of his sleepless nights.

Eventually, inevitably, these displacement activities give way to a slow and imperfect realisation that it’s time to start out on the long, hard slog of recovery: to begin every thought with the phrase ‘since you’ve been gone’ will no longer do. He will start a new calendar, with ‘YR1 AY…year 1 after you.          

Red Is My Heart is a gentle, understated but piercing and intensely moving exploration of the heartbreak of a lost love. The topsy-turvy vortex of the narrator’s emotions is cleverly enhanced by Laurain’s text: sentences upside down, side-on, in slanted and displaced paragraphs, in different-sized type. And allied to these devices are the stark, monochrome – except for red – drawings by Le Sonneur. An eerie view of railway tracks with a bleak housing estate in the distance; a huge black-and-white eye in a red keyhole staring from one page at a disconnected mass of jigsaw pieces on the next; a leitmotif of a ladder, maybe to climb his way out of the morass of his despair? Yet the ladder is more often than not out of reach (behind a submarine diving into the deep) or leading nowhere (just too far away from a man drowning in a fish bowl) or being carried by the – presumed – narrator, with nowhere to lean it. The sense of despair and of tantalising hope brought on by these juxtapositions of text and image evokes in its turn the sense of the spurned lover being dépaysé, a word that in French has the unsettling dual meaning of both ‘disoriented’ but also ‘giving a (pleasant or needed) change of scenery’ – emotions that clearly conflict the lover as he seeks to bury memories that are as unpleasant as they are fond. 

Red Is My Heart is set in Paris, and you may not be surprised to learn that it ends in a phone kiosk. At a mere 191 pages of A5, this is a glorious pen-and-ink portrait – beautifully translated  – of an experience which will, no doubt, strike ringing chords with many of you. Whilst you can get through the text in an hour or so, I would be surprised if you do not spend many more hours pondering Le Sonneur’s finely crafted drawings and the thoughts they stir and indeed superimpose on Antoine Laurain’s sharp and skilful writing. Taken together, the story is both profound and whimsical, dark and buoyant.  

Reviewed by Max Easterman

RED IS MY HEART

by Antoine Laurain and Le Sonneur

Translated from the French by Jane Aitken

Published by Gallic (18 January 2022)

February 2022 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.


Max Easterman is a journalist – he spent 35 years as a senior broadcaster with the BBC – university lecturer, translator, media trainer with ‘Sounds Right’, jazz musician and writer.


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