Book review: Petite Mort, By Beatrice Hitchman

Movie starlets and Sapphic passions: Parisian dreams are made of this

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The Independent Culture

This has been a big year for centenaries and several, including the riotous premier of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and publication of the first volume of Marcel Proust's À La Recherche du Temps Perdu, are connected to Paris.

The French capital in 1913 is a promising setting for Beatrice Hitchman's thriller and, by creating a protagonist who stands on the brink of adulthood during the run up to war, she makes the most of it. Adèle Roux is 17 when she leaves Toulouse with dreams of becoming an actress. Lodging at a brothel and working as a costume seamstress at the Pathé studios isn't what she anticipated but she's soon immersed in a world of temperamental stars, pompous directors and "silky filmstrip".

The atmosphere is rich with sumptuous details but Hitchman resists nostalgia and, as a result, the technological advances of the period appear as striking to the reader as they do to the characters. Handsome director André Durand seduces Adèle and installs her as his concubine on the pretext of employing her as his actress wife's assistant.

André is a one-dimensional villain, which might explain why Adèle finds sex with him perfunctory, and instead she becomes captivated by her mistress's "cool gaze". Her salon is charged with Sapphic frisson but skilful storytelling rescues the novel from erotic clichés.

On and off screen, women characters are expected to play parts and the reader is moved to consider their role in a society governed by men. Hitchman shuffles her main narrative with the 1960s perspective of a writer who is interviewing Adèle in old age about a lost silent movie, the Petite Mort of the title. It's obvious that Adèle, who is a cold, occasionally manipulative heroine, knows more than she's letting on but the twists in the final chapters are a big surprise.

The Parisian elite's hypocrisy is as vivid as their chandeliers but a tribute to cinema as "an illusion that is created with love" reminds us that some traditions are worth preserving. This clever debut indicates a bright future for its author.