BOOK REVIEW / Martyr to marriage: La femme de Gilles - Madeleine Bourdouxhe trs Faith Evans: Lime Tree, pounds 7.99

IN The Second Sex Simone de Beauvoir praised La Femme de Gilles for its clarity of vision and for its tender portrayal of male and female sexuality. It has taken over half a century for this haunting slim novel to appear in English (though the title is untranslated for reasons of ironic double entendre), so hats off to Faith Evans for retrieving the work of Madeleine Bourdouxhe - now 87 and living in Brussels - and for such an elegant English rendering.

Still, 50 years is 50 years, and in the interim feminists have informed the likes of eponymous Gilles that having a smouldering affair with your pregnant wife's gamine sister is inappropriate behaviour for an expectant father. It is impossible to watch Bourdouxhe's angelic, betrayed heroine Elisa yearn for the crumbs of her husband's affection while he cavorts with little sister-in-law Victorine and not want to shake all three of them vigorously. Terrified that sudden movements of self-assertion will prompt Gilles to bolt, Elisa tiptoes about in a graceful domestic dumbshow of soup-making and thoughtfulness. This isn't marriage, it is worship: the seven stations of the kitchen.

Eventually Gilles hits an amorous snag and discovers the torment of jealousy for himself when the skittish Victorine cools towards him and becomes engaged to the local butcher. Gilles takes beleaguered Elisa into his confidence, never connecting his own pain to what she must be suffering.

Bourdouxhe is astute at capturing the niceties of catastrophe: the revelatory way in which betrayal can become apparent in an instant's careless look or gesture; the way a curious, almost euphoric sense of shock protects the heart in the first phases of danger. Then comes the dogged business of emotional survival: it is not so much the loss of Gilles's love Elisa must fear but the loss of her own.

With the mesmeric inevitability of classical tragedy, doom lurks, and Bourdouxhe plays the dramatic tension for all it is worth. Martyrdom, even to obtuse and unworthy gods, is as transfixing as it is disturbing to witness.

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