Voice Over, by Céline Curiol, trans. Sam Richard

The train now leaving is for sex, lies and solitude
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A nameless young Parisian woman, cajoled into helping Renée's transvestite performance, shruggingly consents to sleep with him afterwards. At a birthday party, she steals a kiss from the nameless man with whom she is besotted who, in mid-flirt with another woman, scarcely notices her. These separate incidents congest the opening of Céline Curiol's strong debut novel but establish the pattern of its breathless plot: she is trapped in a near-static ardour for this nameless man, but hurtles helplessly from one anonymous escapade to the next.

Her life is full of misadventure. Among other heart-in-mouth scrapes, she gets locked in a North African drug dealer's garret, is taken for a whore by a diplomat and almost succumbs to a psychiatric intern with a penchant for bondage. She solicits the attention of strangers and tolerates their weightless peccadillos, while intentional intimacy – specifically her misfiring desire to engage with nameless Him – seems quite beyond her.

Professionally, she announces train information at Gare du Nord, a lonely job that renders her invisible to the life around her. Her disembodied voice drifting out over others' busy journeying mirrors her dysfunctional sex life, in which her passivity facilitates older men to play out their desires. Childhood trauma, unsurprisingly, emerges as the root of her discomfort but its isolating impact, rather than predictable detail, is what grounds Curiol's claustrophobic psychology.

Unnamed protagonists, meagre punctuation and scanty stage directions initially seem frustrating but are clearly designed to slow the reader. Curiol deliberately blurs speech and thought in dense slabs of intricate prose to engender the same confusion in the reader as in her cripplingly unconfident protagonist. Disrupting the meticulous narrative flow by making text sympathise with context gives this slim, aching novel a weightier feel, and emphasises the painful significance of communication.

She has never been abroad but, when chatting to a Japanese stranger, she empathises with an alien's experience of a foreign culture: "no points of reference, a permanent sense of incomprehension, of rejection". This perfectly summarises the vulnerability of her own emotional status as an internal exile. Curiol tempers the bleak drift of her efforts to connect with her beloved by dropping in the surreal humour of impulsive and hapless sexual imbroglios with strangers.

Voice Over is strongly reminiscent of Inglorious, Joanna Kavenna's applauded debut novel of a professional woman in freefall, but its sharp concentricity of characters and coincidence also recalls the brighter symmetries of Barbara Trapido's comedies. With tight orchestration, a compelling plot, and the emotional heft of how women can be confined by men, Curiol stakes her own impressive claim as a powerful and daring writer.

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