BOOK REVIEW / Two fingers to the war effort: 'The Book of Nights' - Sylvie Germain; Tr. Christine Donougher: Dedalus, 8.99 pounds

AT WHAT point does suffering turn into absolute despair? How do we find the inner strength to survive the cruel game called life? Sylvie Germain's introspective and anguished first novel is a challenging exploration of these questions. She takes us on an epic expedition to inner sorrow, untold suffering, social darkness and grotesque fate. The journey leaves us crushed by a bulldozer of emotions; but convinced that The Book of Nights is a masterpiece.

The complex narrative unfolds 100 years of 19th and 20th century French history through the eyes of one peasant family. The Peniels start the novel as freshwater people, living on a boat and moving with the flow of the canals. Then Vitalie Peniel's only surviving son, Theodore-Faustin, is drafted and sent to the front. He returns from the war a battered and bitter man. Unable to cope with his rage, he turns on himself and his family and ends up raping his daughter. This incestuous encounter produces Victor-Flandrin, the protagonist of the novel.

Victor-Flandrin is born with a gold speck in his left eye. To save his son from being drafted into the army, Theodore-Faustin cuts two fingers off his right hand. Victor-Flandrin thus escapes the war, leaves the wobbly waters for solid earth, befriends a wolf and acquires the nickname, Night-of-Gold-Wolf-Face.

The novel is structured into five metaphorical 'nights': water, earth, roses, blood and ashes. Each night reflects a particular phase in the protagonist's life. We follow Victor-Flandrin through these phases as he marries, buries his wives, raises his children and watches them suffer and die. But it is not just Victor-Flandrin's life that follows a fixed trajectory. The lives of his wives and offspring also follow the same pattern. Tragedy, pain, suffering thus emerge as inherited and infectious diseases that move the narrative in endless cycles.

Victor-Flandrin marries four women and rapes a fifth. He fathers 15 children, who are always born as identical twins - except the product of the rape who arrive in triplets - and with the distinctive Peniel mark of suffering: the gold fleck in the left eye. His first wife, Melanie Valcourt, dies an early death when she is kicked by a horse. One of her daughters is rejected in love, becomes known as the 'Jilted Bride', goes mad and starves herself to death. Blanch, the illegitimate niece of the local vicar, and Victor-Flandrin's second wife, is killed by the painful birth of her twin daughters. She implodes when her body is drained of all water. One of her daughters oozes blood whenever a family tragedy becomes imminent. Elminthe-Presentation-of-the-Lord-Mary, the scarred servant whom Victor-Flandrin takes as his third wife, goes through a number of metamorphoses and dreams herself to death. And Ruth, the Jewish widow who becomes his fourth wife, ends up in a Nazi gas chamber. The children of these women suffer similar grotesque and tragic fates.

'But this is sheer agony, with no touch of consolation,' Germain says of her narrative at one point. But there is consolation in the towering character of Victor-Flandrin. Just as surely as day follows night, we know that he will always pull back from the knife-edge of absolute despair to gather and rebuild the shattered remains of his life. Even when the departing German army burns down his house, kills his surviving children and take Ruth to the gas chamber, Victor-Flandrin does not give up on life. He reflects on his calamities: 'A lover and father rejected by love, a living being rejected by life, yet without being accepted by death.' And it is in this very rejection that Victor-Flandrin finds the strength to survive what is left of his perpetually suffering life.

In the end there are no victors in the grim game of life. Those who survive and those who do not are all entrapped by fate: there is no exit. We end the novel with the signs that the drama will be repeated with a new set of characters. Victor-Flandrin's last breath gives birth to a grandson. The infernal cycle will start again as the eternal suffering of Night-of-Gold-Wolf-Face is transferred to the youngest Peniel who will come to be known as Night-of-Amber.

Germain, who won the 1989 Femina Prize, is endowed with extraordinary narrative and descriptive abilities. While the bizarre and the fantastic are ever present, Germain manages to keep the magical side of her 'magical realism' under firm control. She excels in portraits of emotional intensity and the gritty realism of raw emotions gives the novel its unique power. The Book of Nights is a literary feast.