No and Me, By Delphine de Vigan

Voice of the down and out in Paris
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The Independent Culture

Oliver Twist feels nothing but gratitude when charitable Mr Brownlow rescues him from destitution.

In this novel, 15-year-old No, a homeless Parisian adolescent, is also appreciative when Lou, two years her junior, persuades her parents to let this new friend stay in their flat and experience a better life. But while Oliver always seems mysteriously protected from taint by his high birth, No has by now become physically weak as well as morally frail. Her further descent into drugs and alcohol has a sad inevitability.

In Jean Renoir's pre-war film, Boudu Sauvé des Eaux, the great Michel Simon played a tramp whose presence gives new meaning to the bourgeois family that rescued him from drowning. In this story too, shy, lonely Lou blossoms as a result of having No as a first confidante. Her parents, still in emotional freefall after the death of a baby, also come out of their grief. But a short trip to visit relatives during which No is left behind on her own has the effect of demolishing for good her dream of acceptance in a new family. An unsuccessful visit to her coldly rejecting mother is the last blow, with No finally disappearing without trace.

This novel, translated by George Miller, has so far sold over 120,000 copies abroad to adult as well as teenage readers and is currently being filmed. It is eloquent and moving about the poor treatment given to those sleeping rough in France, but perhaps too ready to take the tragic path for some Anglo-Saxon tastes.

No, Lou and her parents spend much of the time being miserable; a touch of the cynically protective humour of a Holden Caulfield or Artful Dodger would not come amiss. Lou finishes on an unexpected high when she receives a passionate kiss from the boy who has been helping her. She also feels unafraid for the first time, and has a belated reconciliation with her mother. But No, like so many rough sleepers, ends up by disappearing into a parallel, invisible world.

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