The Girl from the Chartreuse By Pierre Péju

Stories to wake the dead
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The Independent Culture
>One wintry evening, Vollard the bookseller runs over a 10-year-old girl with his van. The opening section of Pierre Péju's novel follows their next 24 hours, as Éva clings to life. That such a story is not unbearable is due partly to the elegance of Péju's prose (served perfectly by his translator Ina Rilke), but also to the peculiarities of his two adult protagonists, Vollard and Éva's mother, Thérèse.

The latter, an aimless, depressive drifter, elicits little sympathy. Éva herself, even after a partial recovery, remains a cypher - silent, frail, unemotional. Vollard is the focus of our compassion, particularly after the novel's central, and least successful, section reveals the torments and privations of his youth.

Péju's real subject is literature itself. Vollard is an unlikely Scheherazade but, in telling Eva fairytales to wake her from her coma, he finds a use for the quotations that swarm at him through nights of insomnia. Péju treads a fine line between pretension and profundity, layering his text with many others from the Gospels to Becket and Borges, but his own words, weighed against theirs, are rarely found wanting.

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