#RivetingReviews: Paul Burke reviews THE CHILD WHO by Jeanne Benameur

This extraordinary modern fable explores the experience of profound grief and loss – how we survive it and, eventually, come to terms with the chasm it creates in our lives. It’s a powerful, insightful and genuinely moving read. If the novelist’s job is to pose existential questions, it feels like Benameur provides answers too. I’m sure that this brief and elegant novel will, to many, be a comfort, a way of ordering their thoughts and dealing with the suddenness and individual pain of grief. 

Three generations of a French family are faced with the disappearance of one of their members – a mother, daughter and wife. She is presumed dead, though that is never actually confirmed; suddenly the woman is simply no longer present in the family. Her absence from their lives creates a well of pain. 

The adults deal with it internally, leaving the woman’s young son to make sense of his trauma alone. He is unable to turn to his carpenter father, a man mired in his own guilt and sense of tragedy; an alcoholic slowly destroying himself, almost blind to his son’s plight. But he is no mere foil for the boy’s story; his own tale unfolds too. The same is true of the boy’s grandmother, who deals with her daughter’s absence by soldiering on, occasionally singing and cooking favourite recipes to remind the boy of his mother. Yet neither she nor the boy’s father seem able to reach out to him. 

The boy refuses to speak – and the adults don’t seem to have any words for him. So he wanders into the forest where the family live, an imaginary dog for a companion, searching for some meaning in nature. During his mysterious sojourn in the woods, he forgoes any philosophical or intellectual response to his grief, and dives instead straight into the visceral experience. We are drawn deep into the void with the boy, before clawing our way out the other side with him, as he learns to live with his grief, surviving and accepting it, and building himself a future. The boy has, through nature, come to understand the cycle of life and its inherent cruelty, but has also gained a sense of freedom. 

While his mother wasn’t attentive, she was always close by; he could sense her aroma, the weight of her presence. As her story emerges we see she was an unhappy woman, an outsider never fully accepted in the community. Still, the void she has left seems unbearable, and without the language of grief, this child is left to find his own way to come to terms with what his loss means, with how he feels, and with what he needs to do to adapt.

It’s a tough subject but there is hope in this story. The world can be sweet, and you can make peace with it – find a way through trauma. It is ultimately a poetic and uplifting read, and a balm for those suffering grief, as it touches at the very core of that experience. As the boy says:

‘I learn the freedom of the river that reflects the world.’

Reviewed by Paul Burke

THE CHILD WHO

by Jeanne Benameur 

Translated by Bill Johnston 

Published by Les Fugitives (2022)

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


Paul Burke writes The Verdict column for nbmagazine.co.uk, interviews, articles and features for crimefictionlover.com, crimetime.co.uk and presents for Crime Time TV&FM podcast. Paul is a book collector, lover of literature in translation and a crime fiction aficionado.

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