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September 2019 book reviews

We read recent releases with a link to France. To be fair, each gets 20 minutes’ reading time. This month, The Tree of the Toraja, If I but knew..., The Sin of Abbé Mouret, and Fight to the Finish: The First World War - Month by Month

The Tree of the Toraja - Philippe Claudel ***EDITOR'S CHOICE***

MacLehose Press, £14.99 ISBN: 978-0-85705-770-9

A middle-aged filmmaker comes back to Paris, after a trip to Indonesia which has totally shaken his view of life and death, just to find out that one of his closest friends, Eugène, also his producer, is now suffering from cancer.

This news changes everything for him, from the moment he gets reunited with his friend to the day his friend is buried.

Lost and confused, the narrator – who remains unnamed – goes through different feelings which are difficult to identify.

At first he does not speak about his trip to Indonesia, and the Toraja’s vision of death – they consider death as a part of life.

As it is at the forefront of their culture, they have for tradition to intern the bodies of young deceased children in the trunks of trees – something that fascinates the narrator. As time passes, the trunk heals, the tree grows and the bodies are protected.

However, the narrator only tells his story to his friend a few months later, and a few days only before he dies. Unsurprisingly, the last words of Eugène were ‘Death makes children of us all’...

Day by day, the narrator has to go through grief while also discovering that death may not be something to fear.

It could become a new beginning, personally and professionally. In spite of his dramatic loss, the narrator has to go on with his life, although he is constantly reminded of his lost friend wherever he goes and whatever he does.

This tragedy also reminds him of all the people he lost: his father, his unborn child. 

The narrator analyses how death works, from suicide to sickness, and how ultimately powerless we can be.

After a difficult period, he finally realises that surviving is also what humans do and what he will have to do. 

To rebuild yourself after such events might not be easy but this novel also reminds us that there is always hope and our perception of life can change everything. The tree is an aptly beautiful symbol to represent how strong humans can be.         


If I but knew... - H.M. Hargreaves

CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, £7.57 -  ISBN: 978-1981868919

Born in Prague, the author has been inspired by her life experiences and her different journeys through Europe and France to write this book of 50 poems.

Not everyone can be a poet like Baudelaire, as words and rhymes are not always easy to play with.

However, this book features poems that are easy to read and understand. It is ideal for a quick break as it can probably be read in an hour.

It recalls emotions that everybody knows, from love to loneliness, while also speaking about more superficial topics such as going to the market or having a new sofa.

The key point might be when you discover the poem ‘If I but knew’, one of the longest poems which has also provided a title for the tome. You then can have a better understanding of the author’s work and the way she manages to transcribe different feelings through words. 

Overall the book is a good mix of serious thoughts, emotions, and lighter subjects. 

Mrs Hargreaves, who currently lives in France, aims to reach poetry lovers and more especially women who perhaps can relate more to her words. But there is certainly something for everyone’s taste in her writing.

The author published Le Ciel est Bleu, another volume of poetry, a few years ago, and If I but knew appears to be a follow-up, although she shared more poems than in her previous book.

She wrote over 100 poems in the few last years but only reveals 50 here. 


The Sin of Abbé Mouret - Emile Zola

Oxford University Press, £8.99 - ISBN: 978-0-19-873663-9

What happens when a priest falls in love with someone else other than God? This is what Serge Mouret is about to discover.

The story – the fifth of Zola’s 20 Rougon-Macquart novels – starts in the church, where you can follow the usual life of the priest.

What you would not suspect is that this same person, totally devoted to God, will soon suffer from amnesia because of an illness, and commit a sin by falling in love with a nurse, with whom he will make love.

But the priest will eventually regain his memory and feel the guilt as he has to return to church.

Although some parts of the book were censured in the 19th century, the subject of the novel remains modern today. It questions not only the Catholic church, but also deals with important topics such as love, sexuality, religion and family.

Zola is known for his polemical texts and controversial opinions. However, speaking about such topics in 1875 shows that he was always ahead of his time.

He was aware that reality must be subject to transformation to become art, and used a lot of metaphor and allegory. 

This novel, as many written by Zola, is a must-read, not for the story but for what is hidden behind it.


Fight to the Finish: The First World War - Month by Month - Allan Mallinson

Bantam Press, £25 - ISBN: 978-0-593-07914-0

‘Just another book on the war’, is what you might think when you start reading.

However, this novel has some particularities.

Written by a former soldier, it looks back on the First World War timeline month by month, from the opening shots in 1914 to the signing of the Armistice in 1918.

Those tumultuous four years have been summed up in a clear and concise way which not only gives an overview of why the war started but also allows the reader to have a better understanding of everything that unfolded.

From Russia to Turkey, from France to Britain, no detail has been forgotten by the author who also explains how the war destroyed empires around the world.

While reading, you fall into the reality of the war, and the narrator gives you all the perspectives you need to understand how everything was working.

You can see different points of view, from the perspective of soldiers to the decisions made by political figures such as Churchill

Choosing to go month by month is actually a good way to present the story, while maps and a detailed description of all the alliances will help readers requiring further clarification.

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