French author Philippe Claudel’s Grey Souls had been languishing on one of my many to-read lists for years before I thought to check my local library for a copy. The novel won the Prix Renaudot in France, and has been praised variously as having a ‘heart-gripping, melancholic beauty’ (Independent), and using ‘magnificent’ language (Le Parisien). First published in 2003, Grey Souls, which is the opening volume in a loosely-connected war trilogy, has been translated into English by Hoyt Rogers.
Grey Souls is set in northern France, a region which I personally know very well, in December 1917. The small town of ‘V’, in which the entirety of the novel takes place, is close to the Front. Here, towards the end of the First World War, ‘any lingering sense of normality is destroyed with the discovery of a strangled ten-year-old girl in the freezing canal.’ A deserter from the army is conveniently convicted of her murder, and is subsequently executed. Years later, however, ‘struggling with the tragedies and demons of his own past, the narrator is still trying to make sense of these events.’
The opening of Grey Souls sets up the unnamed narrator’s quest immediately: ‘It’s very difficult to find the beginning. So much time has gone by that words will never bring back – and the faces too, the smiles, the wounds. Even so, I must try. I have to cut open the belly of the mystery and stick my hands deep inside, even if none of that will change a thing.’ He tells us that he once worked as a policeman, and is now retired.
At the outset, the narrator describes the moment at which the child’s body was found: ‘Lying on the ground, a ten-year-old’s body seems even smaller, especially when it’s saturated with winter water… She looked like a fairy-tale princess with her eyelids blanched and lips turned blue, her hair entangled with the grass, withered brown by morning frosts. Her little hands had clutched at emptiness.’ This is just one example of how rich and effective Claudel’s descriptions are. Another which struck me is the description of the nearby battle, which the town of ‘V’ is shielded by: ‘By the grace of the hill we managed to dodge it, despite the smells and noises it threw our way… The war mounted its stylish performances behind the hill, on the other side, in a world that wasn’t even ours – in other words, nowhere. We refused to be its audience. We made of the war the stuff of legend, and so we were able to live with it.’
The narrative in Grey Souls moves quickly, pivoting from one year to another at will. We learn, by turns, of the rather cynical narrator’s past, as well as that of his father. The mystery element of the novel is also tied in, and returned to time and again. ‘All this must seem a muddle, back and forth in time,’ the narrator explains, ‘but in fact it’s the very image of my life, made of nothing but jagged bits and pieces, impossible to stick back together.’ There is rather a cold, odd aspect to the narration, which culminates in paragraphs such as the following: ‘Words were never easy for me. I hardly used them when I was still alive. If I write as if I’m a dead man, or a matter of fact, that is true, true as true can be. For a long time I’ve felt like one, just keeping up a pretence of living for a while longer. I’m serving a suspended sentence, you might say.’
Grey Souls is a slim novel, but it is filled to the brim with intrigue and atmosphere. The prose is absorbing, and the pace works well. At its core, this is a mystery novel, but in reality, it feels like much more than that. A lot of sadness and emotion is packed into Grey Souls, and the plotting adds intrigue to the story. Claudel hints at occurrences throughout, but we only learn about them in their entirety much later. This is a very good novel indeed, and I will certainly continue with the rest of the series at some point.