Fire in the Blood, By Irène Némirovsky, trans Sandra Smith

Secrets and surprises in a hellish Arcadia

Reviewed,Paul Bailey
Friday 12 October 2007 00:00 BST

This newly discovered novella by Irène Némirovsky, author of Suite Française, the unfinished masterpiece-in-waiting retrieved from oblivion by her daughter Denise Epstein, was assumed lost or uncompleted until Olivier Philipponat and Patrick Lienhardt found the missing manuscript two years ago. All that had existed was the opening chapter typed by Némirovsky's husband Michel, ending with the words "I who was so old...". Philipponat and Lienhardt, who are working on the author's biography, realised that the 30 tightly-packed handwritten pages constituted the remainder of the book she had given the title Fire in the Blood.

"Everyone lives in his own house, on his own land, distrusts his neighbours, harvests his wheat, counts his money and doesn't give a thought to the rest of the world," observes the narrator, an elderly bachelor named Sylvestre. The setting is rural Burgundy in the years following the First World War. Sylvestre is a wry commentator on the behaviour of the outwardly respectable people who live in the village he has returned to after a life of travel and adventure.

He is a regular visitor to the house occupied by his cousin Hélène, her husband François, their daughter Colette and three sons. Hélène always addresses him as Cousin Silvio, for reasons only revealed in the closing chapters. At the beginning of the story, Colette is about to marry Jean Dorin, a good, industrious young man she has known from childhood.

The pair will live at Moulin-Neuf, not far from Coudray, the home of Hélène's half-sister Cécile, who is a ghostly presence throughout. She is one of the dead who won't go away, her vengeful spirit causing havoc.

Fire in the Blood was written in the late 1930s and early 1940s, when the novels of François Mauriac and Georges Bernanos were widely read in France. Mauriac and Bernanos, both Catholics, diagnosed the darkness beneath the surface of the pastoral idyll; and here is Némirovsky doing much the same. Her villagers have secrets, and she makes it the business of Sylvestre to bring them to light as the simple tale becomes ever more complicated.

Two other characters are responsible for the most dramatic event in the seemingly calm narrative – Brigitte, the orphaned girl cared for by Cécile before being married off to an old, wealthy farmer called Declos, and Marc Ohnet, a handsome, hard-drinking youth whom the villagers dislike.

Given more romantic circumstances, the couple might be accounted a village Romeo and Juliet, but Brigitte and Marc's fate has nothing lyrical about it. Theirs is a squalid covenant, about which the police and judiciary will never be informed. Brigitte has developed into an expert blackmailer as the result of three decades of consistent suffering – she is well aware who her mother is, and has suspicions concerning the identity of her father. The reader has Brigitte's suspicions confirmed in cavalier fashion by the wily Sylvestre. Marc is too stupid to be so devious, trusting in his cunning fiancée to do the necessary dirty work.

The novella is a model of storytelling, with each surprise appointed its appropriate place. One guilty façade after another is stripped away, but the ending has to be ambiguous. These wretched men and women will go on hoarding their money, and distrusting their neighbours as much as they distrust themselves. What a hellish Arcadia Némirovsky conjures up, and with what refinement and subtlety, even as the fire in the blood ignites and destroys.

Paul Bailey's latest novel is 'Uncle Rudolf' (Fourth Estate)

Chatto & Windus £12.99 (156pp) £11.69 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

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