Gallic Fiction, £6.99
The A26, By Pascal Garnier
The murder highway that turns off into the French provinces
Friday 08 February 2013
The French writer Pascal Garnier, who died in 2010, was known for his hypnotic, amoral novelettes drawn from the darker side of provincial life. For those with a taste for Georges Simenon or Patricia Highsmith, Garnier's recently translated oeuvre will strike a chord.
In The A26, The future is coming to Picardy in the form of a new auto-route. But close to the main construction site is a shuttered house where nothing has changed since 1945.
In this home to Bernard and Yolande, it's hard to say which of the two siblings is the more dysfunctional. Yolande, traumatised by events that took place at the end of the war, hasn't left the house in decades, viewing the outside from a peephole she calls the "world's arsehole", while Bernard is now facing the endgame of a terminal illness.
In precise, limpid prose, Garnier builds up a creepily memorable portrait of life inside the house. Yolande spends her days snipping out pictures from magazines and boiling up bones for a pot-au-feu which smells disconcertingly of sweat.
Bernard returns every evening with the imprint of his SNCF cap still visible on his flattened hair. But then comes news of his diagnosis and his appearance at meal times becomes sporadic. With nothing left to lose, he starts to cruise the surrounding countryside and indulge his new found appetite for violence.
Like Highsmith's Tom Ripley, Bernard's attitude to murder is supremely relaxed. His first victim, Maryse, is a young redhead he spots thumbing a lift in the rain.
Maryse is followed by Irene, a plump older woman whose body also ends being abandoned by the fledging A26. More murders follow as we are inducted into the secrets of Bernard and Yolande's quasi-incestuous youth.
Garnier's novel has been described variously as a roman gris and a roman dur. While this is an undeniably steely work, his translator Melanie Florence does justice to the author's occasional outbreaks of dark humour that suddenly pierce though the clouds of encroaching existential gloom.
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