Dreams from the Endz, by Faïza Guène, trans Sarah Ardizzone

Bare buff beastliness in the banlieues
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The Independent Culture

Faïza Guène's first novel, written when she was 17, sold over a quarter of a million copies. This second also draws on her experience, of a young French Algerian up against the odds in a run-down Paris banlieue. But the cheeky teenage spirit that made Just Like Tomorrow so entertaining despite its grim background has now been replaced by the anger of a 24-year-old woman close to despair.

Ahlème has indeed much to be negative about: she lost her mother 13 years ago in a village massacre in Algiers, and her father is brain-damaged after an industrial accident. Her energies are now shared between trying to get herself a job while also protecting her 16-year-old brother, Foued, from a life of crime. Although some small successes come her way on both counts, the future still ends up looking bleak.

Much of Guène's former success arose from her exuberant use of the latest urban slang, heroically translated then and now by Sarah Ardizzone. But what sounds fresh in French reads like a remote foreign language once translated.

The "endz" of the title means the area you live in. Translated from the French les oufs, this replacement lacks the linguistic genius responsible for making the original expression stick. And what about living in a bled, looking slick, going out with bare buff beasts (young men) or an old television set that is decidedly ova-wack? All these meanings become clear in the text, but lack the eavesdropping thrill of briefly listening in to an unfamiliar language spoken in your own country.

Towards the end of her story, Ahlème takes her brother for a holiday in Algeria to meet the rest of the family. She dislikes life over there even more, longing to get back to France and the social benefits that keep her going between jobs. She is not keen on most of the men in her life either, and while it would be unfeeling to wish that she could at times lighten up, a little there is only so much patience available for what often comes over as the verbal equivalent of a prolonged snarl.

But Guène is too important a writer to dismiss because she conveys a generally unsettling message. As before, she deserves to be heard, and it is hardly her fault that she cannot come up with any easy solution to the problem posed by desperate semi-legal immigrants trying to cope in an increasingly tough political and economic climate.

Nicholas Tucker is co-author of the 'Rough Guide to Books for Teenagers'