#RivetingReviews: Paul Burke reviews THE BIRTHDAY PARTY by Laurent Mauvignier

The experimental crime novel, or literary foray into the form, which challenges tropes and upends structure is nothing new. The genre lends itself to questioning, to having its values and purpose examined. Nevertheless, The Birthday Party comes as a bit of a surprise, because it pushes those genre boundaries to new limits. All the rules of sentence and pace are subverted.

It’s a demanding read, requiring patience. The long, drawn-out narrative runs contrary to that of a thriller, challenging preconceptions and countering expectations along the way, and yet somehow it works. The story grows on you and soon grips like a page-turner. The literary asides and the minutiae of character and setting delight rather than distract, until their importance to what’s happening slowly dawns on the reader. This is the longest slow-burn fuse in crime fiction.  

Somewhere in rural France is the hitherto quiet hamlet of Three Lone Girls, a shrinking community going about its business unobtrusively. But there are secrets and undercurrents, and the lives of the locals are about to be irrevocably shattered, not suddenly but in imperceptible increments as miniscule tensions appear. 

Patrice Bergogne drives his artist neighbour, Christine, to the local police station to report anonymous threatening letters, hand delivered to her door. A mischief or something more sinister? It’s a whole chapter before we find out that this is the reason for their journey, after meandering through their lives and memories, revealing connections and conflicting perceptions of each other. It’s another hundred pages before the significance of the letters becomes apparent. 

Patrice has inherited the family farm and lives in one of the three remaining houses in the hamlet with his wife, Marion, and daughter, Ida. Their friend Christine rents on of the other houses. Patrice is preparing a surprise fortieth birthday party for Marion. The party is the fulcrum of the story, as a similar event was in Mauvignier’s previous novel, Wound. People do things you’d expect in the run up to a party: Patrice, for instance, heads into town to make arrangements for the special day. But then an unusual twist occurs: on the way he stops off to visit a local prostitute.

Spending time with each of these characters in this close third-person narrative means the book becomes very intimate. We get a feel for the relationships, the marital problems, the sexual tension and repression, and for the work problems that can’t be left in the office, the pressure of financial worries, and the lies and secrets that will soon out, causing humiliation and fostering revenge. 

Gradually events become more unnerving: the letters, an unknown car pulling into the driveway, and strangers gathering outside the house in the dead of night. The quiet rural existence is a façade. Tensions escalate, and a real menace enters the narrative, until a tragic eruption turns the story into a fully fledged nightmare. The psychological drama bleeds into horror. 

This is noir in which things unfold in the kind of slow motion where you see every horrifying detail. Perhaps such an intense look at the nuts and bolts of domestic relationships, at a creaking marriage and difficult friendships, shouldn’t be this engaging, but it is. There’s a rhythm to the language that helps this strange, propulsive tale maintain its pull. A disturbing but mesmeric read.

Reviewed by Paul Burke


by Laurent Mauvignier 

Translated by Daniel Levin Becker 

Published by Fitzcarraldo Editions (2023)

January 2023 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.

Paul Burke writes reviews, interviews, articles and features for crimefictionlover.com and crimetime.co.uk. He is editor and presenter of the Crime Time FM podcast and is a judge for the CWA Historical Dagger. Paul is a book collector, lover of literature in translation and a crime fiction aficionado.

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Category: January 2023Reviews


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