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Review: Severe, By By Régis Jauffret (trs Joel Anderson)

Anatomy of a crime without passion

In the spring of 2009, the French were mesmerised by a murder trial that had everything needed to whet Gallic appetites: a glamorous mistress, a billionaire victim, and more than a whiff of kinky extramarital sex. Cécile Brossard was judged guilty and sentenced to eight-and-a-half years in prison for shooting her lover Édouard Stern, a respected banker and the 38th richest man in France. He had been found dead in his luxury Geneva flat wearing a bullet-riddled, all-in-one latex sex suit; she had fled to Australia.

Régis Jauffret's Severe takes the facts of the case as the starting point for his fiction, but pitches his work as an imaginative investigation rather than a straightforward novelisation. He never names his protagonists. "Don't believe this story is real," he insists, "it is I who invented it." Jauffret's disclaimer, however, did not prevent the Stern family, citing invasion of privacy, from trying to get the book banned.

Jauffret wields his pen "like a torch" to illuminate a human drama behind the public facts. It is his sparse prose that makes this novel compelling. There is a stylish blankness to the mistress's first-person confession, as she recalls fragments of the affair through a haze of champagne and antidepressants.

This numbness of expression is at odds with the gritty, frequently visceral detail of the story. Her testimony recounts her time as a high-class prostitute before becoming the lover and ultimately "sexual secretary" of the ruthless businessman; he leads her towards dark complicity in shady encounters with politicians, bisexual orgies, and ever more violent S&M roleplay.

Severe is, however, far removed from the gushing sentimentality of Fifty Shades of Grey. Indeed, there is scarcely room for any emotion at all. The murder is described as "a crime of love", but it is hard to locate anything approaching affection in the relationship: he is violent, heartless, and likes nothing more than hunting wolves; she seems most interested in the million dollars he has promised her in lieu of marriage.

The quality of Jauffret's language, which fluctuates between the precise and the poetic, ensures his writing never lapses into sensationalism. Severe is a dark, often brutal, but resoundingly subtle consideration of the dynamics between love, exploitation, sex and power.