Women in Translation Month: ‘A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray’ by Dominique Barbéris ****

For me, Daunt Books are an incredibly exciting publisher. Not only are they bringing out themed anthologies with commissioned content from contemporary authors both well-known and new to me, they are also making a concerted effort to translate works from other countries. Any reader of my reviews will know that I am an enormous fan of French literature, and so Daunt’s release of Dominique Barbéris’ A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray was a title which immediately made its way onto my must-read list.

A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray was longlisted for the Prix Goncourt, and shortlisted for the Prix Femina, both incredibly prestigious awards in the author’s native France. This edition has been translated into English by John Cullen. Although Barbéris is a prolific author, this novella is the only one of her books currently available in English.

The novel begins on a Sunday in early September, ‘one of those days thar cross the border between summer and autumn’. Our protagonist, high school teacher Jane, is leaving her home in Paris in order to visit her sister, Claire Marie, in the western suburbs of the city, a place called Ville-d’Avray. Although it is less than an hour away from the centre, our narrator tells us that it ‘seems like another world, with its secluded streets and set-back houses.’ Claire Marie lives in: ‘One of these streets that climb the hills near the Parc de Saint-Cloud’.

The sisters do not see one another often, and Jane rarely visits. In fact, the sisters have not spoken for an entire year before Jane’s unexpected visit. Jane’s partner professes that he finds her sister ‘boring’; she tells us, though, that ‘it would be more accurate to say that he’s suspicious of her’. For Claire Marie, Sundays are a sacred time, where she can devote hours to thinking about life, and ‘whether she expected something more from it, and whether she is still waiting for it to begin.’

Interspersed with the present-day narrative are sections where Jane thinks about Sundays which she spent during her childhood in Brussels. On Sundays, ‘Night fell faster than it did on the other days of the week’, and her mother was perpetually worked up about having to run the household: ‘… she’d say that Sundays were unbearable, and that her life was a failure.’ During this particular visit, Claire Marie is also thinking about the past; she reveals to Jane an ‘encounter’ which she had several years before, with one of her doctor husband’s patients. This could have changed the entire course of her life, and she continually wonders what would have happened if she had chosen this other, different path. She muses: ‘“On Sundays – don’t you think? – certain things come back to you more than on other days.”’

The sisters are both unhappy with aspects of their lives, and are visibly uncomfortable around one another. Jane reveals to us: ‘As I waited in the garden, I also had a familiar with indefinable feeling, slightly heavy, like a mild illness. Ville-d’Avray is just a few minutes from Paris, but you’d think you were hundreds of kilometres away. That, no doubt, explains how a man like [her partner] Luc can be incapable of comprehending the universe my sister lives in.’ She tells us that she was ‘in the melancholy state of mind that often comes over me when I go to see my sister…’.

A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray is constructed of a series of short vignettes which move back and forth in time. This is something which I love in fiction, and I felt that Barbéris controlled the technique incredibly well. The narrative, despite flipping back and forth somewhat between time periods, never feels confusing, or disjointed. The visceral descriptions throughout were also most enjoyable to read. Jane reflects: ‘I could practically see my sister stalling with her stranger in a setting composed of reflections, of beautiful trees, of leaves speckled with tiny light-coloured patches, like eye floaters, as if the blurriness of dreams interposed itself between the image and the beholder…’. Throughout, I also really liked the way in which our narrator described the physical being of her sister, and revealed snippets about their relationship.

There is something rather creepy which settles throughout this novella. When we learn about the stranger with whom Claire Marie had her ‘encounter’, we are led to put our guard up against him straight away. I think that this element of mystery fitted in well with the narrative, and I could not put the book down. A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray is a striking book, which builds wonderfully to its conclusion.