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Novel set in France (Life and Murder in WWI)

4th August 2015

Grey Souls by Philippe Claudel, novel set in France.


Background image from an original Rigolot daguerrotype postcard “La mare aux fées”

The murder of a young girl in 1917 becomes “the Case” for the narrator as he struggles to understand who did it, the motives of the people he lives among and the war going on over the hill.

Whilst the cannons of war can be heard in the distance, a little girl is silenced for ever. The narrator tells the reader that this is an unusual occurrence at this time, as most killers have gone to the war to legitimately act out their aggression. The book progresses from the murder scene to investigate the lives of possible culprits and those involved in the investigation. The narrator, who investigated the original murder scene, takes us back to the years preceding the murder, and to events that took place shortly afterwards, and even 20 years later.

We learn of the tragedies and pleasures amongst the people living so close to the French front line. The lives of those working in a factory essential to the war effort, are compared to the soldiers heading to the front to give their lives, or at the very least their limbs, for their country. The author looks at the minutiae and the broad picture of town life looking at the individual lives being lived in the town in contrast to the mass of people over the hill fighting as one body. Although the book wanders through many lives and down many paths of conjecture and thought, there is a solid ending and the main threads of the many stories within this slim book (205 pages) are tied up neatly.

Winner of the “Prix Renaudot” , this is a novel that, I feel, deserves to be read slowly, with time to think about the superb imagery and expressive style of the author. A perfect book for those who like to read a chapter and then ponder the messages within those pages. There are so many wonderful ideas and observations about life, for example “if man isn’t like one of those pebbles that lie on the road, lying in the same place for entire days until someone kicks it and sends it sailing through the air for no reason. And what can a pebble do?” There are many such phrases and thoughts throughout the whole book, together with humour and great sadness. The imagery is very strong, and the writing clear and easy to follow – though I did get a bit lost occasionally as to where in the timeline the narration was taking place.

I certainly found I was drawn into the novel’s characters, and the horrors of lives lived such a short distance from the carnage of war (this is not a cheerful, feel good book). The narration imitates a real telling of an event (like listening to a favourite uncle), where one is often taken back and forth between times, and then taken off at a tangent to bring in other events that were taking place at the time. This is a book that I will certainly think about for some time to come, and would have liked to have read it when I was a student so that I could have been part of a group discussion on the many themes and wonderful images that are within this short book.

Emma for the TripFiction Team

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