Casting a puzzled pearl before male swine

Elisa Segrave enjoys some animal magic; Pig Tales by Marie Darrieussecq, Faber, pounds 9.99

This is the story, told in the first person, of an attractive young woman who turns into a pig. She works in a "massage" parlour called Perfumes Plus and is a great success with the clients, particularly the men. There is one female customer whom our heroine likes, but the old lady is soon found brutally murdered.

The book is chock-full of surreal incidents, occurring in quick succession, provoking, in this reader at least, laughter mixed with nausea.I kept wondering whether I was perverted to find them funny. An anti-abortionist chains himself to our heroine's bed while she's having an abortion, and swallows the key that unlocks him. He's there for six hours, soaked in her blood, till the police cut him loose. Later, he escorts the limping young woman back to her place of work, suddenly pointing at her emerging "piggy" features and yelling: "The mark of the Beast!"

Presumably this savage, highly imaginative satire is meant to indicate how low we human beings have sunk in our carnal obsessions and greed. Men come out slightly worse than women. It is they who demand the most "kinky" practices in the massage parlour and they who behave most callously, both in private and in public life. (A man called Edgar starts running the country, and after using the heroine on a campaign poster without her permission - the slogan is "For a Better World" - laughingly suggests turning the prisons into piggeries as "at least they'd provide low-cost protein".)

Few women help her, either. Her mother, who has won the Lotto, lets her down badly by turning her back on her. This puzzled, ignorant young woman has always relied on her looks and on pleasing men. She is not helped by the low behaviour of those around her. A priest to whom the girl confesses has popping eyes and a dog's muzzle. A Russian with whom she falls in love turns out to be a werewolf, who at each full moon satisfies his hunger on the young men who deliver takeaway pizza. At one moment our heroine gives premature birth - to six piglets - and jumps down a manhole cover with them to escape a Mobile Crisis Intervention Unit. (The piglets die.) Honore, her lover and protector, also turns nasty, cutting the throat of the guinea-pig she has bought to keep her company.

The only small fault I could find is that it is sometimes confusing for the reader to work out when the heroine is a pig and when she isn't, and when others perceive her as a pig. In Aqualand, an amusement park where swimming and other more decadent activities occur, Honore buys her a new dress but does not mention that she now has six breasts. On another occasion he brings home potted minced pork and she vomits.

The most lyrical passages occur when she is a full-blown pig and indulges herself in pig habits. She eats buttercups, grasses, chestnuts and acorns. "I had a strong taste of earth and water in my mouth, the taste of forest, of dead leaves." She begins to watch birds with pleasure.

The young French author has given this lost young woman a "voice" that is authentic, funny and extremely powerful. The prose combines contemporary French slang with descriptive passages written with beauty and economy. The idea of putting certain complicated words and phrases, such as "psychiatrist" and "anarchic growth of cells", into italics to denote the "enormous effort" the pig has in writing and recalling, is hilarious.

Le Monde has compared Pig Tales to the work of Ovid, Kafka and La Fontaine. Many parts of it reminded me of David Garnett's moving long short story about another woman who turns into an animal and is persecuted by callous human beings: Lady into Fox.

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