Exiled from reality

Carole Angier wishes that blurbs would tell the truth; The Last Life by Claire Messud Picador, pounds 12.99, 376pp
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The Independent Culture
A WORK of stunning emotional power, written in prose of matchless iridescence and grace," yells the blurb of The Last Life. Are you reaching eagerly for your pounds 12.99? Or are you counting on the fingers of one hand the number of books in the history of literature of which this could possibly be true? Publishers be warned, and writers too: from such claims there's nowhere to go but down.

The power of this novel isn't emotional at all. A young woman recounts the multiple dislocations of her family: her father's, after four generations in Algeria, back to France; her mother's, from America to France; her own, from France back to America. She tells it in the order in which it was revealed to her, so that the layers are peeled back one by one. This, as the blurb does not say, is well done. The revelations come in a series of family crises, beginning in her 15th year: the moment when her enraged grandfather takes a pot-shot at her teenage gang, and nearly kills her in the midst of her first sexual encounter; the moment when she catches her father with a mistress, and finds her spastic brother locked into his dark elevator; the moments when the family secrets emerge - prostitution, illegitimacy, an attempted suicide.

The family history is thus highly dramatic, even melodramatic. But because the narrator's interest in it is not primarily personal, the drama drifts away. Their sufferings are clear: the father imprisoned by his father, the fierce old tyrant whose Hotel Bellevue keeps them all alive; the mother imprisoned by her foreignness, her loneliness, above all by her damaged son; the daughter imprisoned by all of it, and by its consequences, which include another suicide, this time achieved. But we never imaginatively enter either parent; we know what they feel, but we don't feel it.

And though we are always inside the narrator, the same is mostly true of her. For her interest in herself is not personal, either. It is intellectual: political, psychological, philosophical. The questions these dramas make her ask are about identity, about reality and imagination, about stories.

Can't a novel be an intellectual experience rather than an emotional one - as in Borges, Kundera or Perec? Well, yes (though ideally it should be both). But everything depends then on the quality of intellect, of questions and reflections.

Some of Claire Messud's are very good. She's good on child psychology: how a small child doesn't feel she's deceiving her parents, because she can't believe they don't know; how this certainty of communion changes to knowledge of isolation, with adolescence in between, "a haze of second guessing". She is good on the importance of stories in families, and of loss. Her best pages describe the father's doomed refusal to leave Algeria, to choose between "the suitcase or the coffin".

But to my taste at least, Messud hugely overwrites; she aims too high. The horror of Etienne, the mute vegetable brother, is not dignified by calling him "A sack, a pod, a thief, myself, sagacity". The endless reflections on identity, which the exile has the freedom or terror to reinvent, are only interesting the first time. This is an essentially intelligent novel which should have had some tough editing, and no blurb at all.