Messud is an author whose writing I greatly admire. Over the last few years, I have slowly been making my way through her back catalogue, and have thoroughly enjoyed each of her books. Messud, as an author, appears to me to be rather underrated. I rarely see reviews of her work unless I seek them out, and one of my absolute favourites amongst her novels – The Emperor’s Children – seems polarising among readers.
One thing which I love about Messud’s work is that each of her books is so different in subject matter. Everything which she writes about, from an obsessive female friendship in The Woman Upstairs, to a complicated relationship between two sisters living on opposite sides of the world in When the World Was Steady, is utterly compelling. The Last Life, her second novel, was published in 1999, and is certainly a book to savour.
The Last Life takes as its focus a fifteen-year-old girl named Sagesse LaBasse, who tells her story with a ‘ruthless regard for truth’. She comes from a family of French Algerian immigrants who own a hotel, the Bellevue, on the French Riviera. This overlooks their old homeland. The family are ‘haunted by their history’ and, early on in the novel, they are ‘brought to the brink of destruction by a single reckless act.’
Sagesse has an American mother, and muses throughout about her heritage, and what her mixed nationalities mean to her. The novel is told from a position of retrospect, from Sagesse’s apartment in New York City; it opens: ‘I am American now, but this wasn’t always so.’ A couple of paragraphs later, she reveals the following: ‘I’m not American by default. It’s a choice. But it is a mask. Who, in the thronged avenues of Manhattan, hasn’t known this?’ The grown Sagesse has reached a point in her life where she wishes to ‘translate the world inside, beginning with the home that was once mine, on France’s southern coast…’. So begins her story.
From the outset, everything about The Last Life intrigued me. Messud’s prose is rich, and characteristically searching. The many descriptions which she gives throughout to situate Sagesse and her family are luscious, and incredibly evocative. Messud’s attention to detail renders every landscape, every object, almost tangible to the reader. When living in the South of France, for instance, ‘… the days lingered like overripe fruit, soft and heavily scented, melting into the glorious dusk. We gathered by the hotel pool, on the clifftop, after supper, watching the sky falter into Prussian blue, to blue-black, and the moon rise over the Mediterranean, the sea spread out before us, whispering and wrinkled.’
In many ways, The Last Life is a coming-of-age novel; we watch the teenage Sagesse grow, preoccupied with stuffing her bra, and being around her peers rather than her family. There are moments of intrigue here, and others of surprise. The single incident, which serves to make the LaBasse family question so much, felt unexpected, as did Sagesse’s expulsion from the family home soon afterward, to stay with her aunt in America. Messud demonstrates great insight throughout, especially on the many and varied experiences of being a teenager. I found Sagesse and her reactions to be thoroughly believable.
The storyline of The Last Life is an intricate one. The feelings of displacement, of ‘otherness’, ricochet through the novel, affecting many of the characters. When with her aunt in Boston, Sagesse comments: ‘It dawned on me in those early days that I was, in this place, remarkably, a cipher. I didn’t speak much. The tidal wave of American English was tiring for me, and it took all my energy to keep up, and anyway I felt that my personality didn’t translate. I couldn’t make jokes in English, or not without planning them out before I spoke, by which time they ceased to be funny and I couldn’t be bothered to voice them… But because they didn’t know me, my cousins didn’t notice. They thought me reserved, perhaps, or pensive, or homesick (which I often was, but they didn’t ask about my home), and each projected onto me the character she wanted or needed me to have.’
I have always found Messud’s work to contain incredibly deep portrayals and explorations of the human condition. This novel is certainly no different; it is just as astute, direct, and thorough as I was expecting. I cannot fathom why Messud seems to be such an underappreciated author, and I hope that if you pick up The Last Life, or one of her books based on this review, that you enjoy her work just as much as I do.