Marie Sizun’s novella, Her Father’s Daughter, is the twentieth title on independent publisher Peirene Press’ list. Part of the Fairy Tale series, it is described as ‘a taut and subtle family drama’, and has been translated from its original French by Adriana Hunter. Her Father’s Daughter is Sizun’s debut work, written when she was 65, and first published in 2005. The novella was longlisted for the prestigious Prix Femina.
Her Father’s Daughter is set in a Paris in the grip of the Second World War. A small girl named France is content, living solely with her mother in their apartment; that is, until her father returns from his prisoner of war camp in Germany. At this point, ‘the mother shifts her devotion to her husband. The girl realizes that she must win over her father to recover her position in the family. She reveals a secret that will change their lives.’ Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene Press, writes that here, Sizun presents ‘a rare examination of the bonds and boundaries between father and daughter.’
An omniscient perspective has been used throughout, in which each member of the family is referred to largely using the title of their familial position, and their relation to France. France, for instance, is just ‘the girl’ for the majority of the book, and we also become acquainted with her ‘the mother’, ‘the father’, and ‘the grandmother’. Of the decision to largely omit given names, Sizun writes: ‘But no one remembers now [that the little girl is called France]… They just call her “the child”, that’s enough. As for calling her name to summon her, to make her come back, that never happens: the child is always there, close by, under her mother’s feet, or consumed with waiting for her.’
The novella begins as France hears a radio announcement, in which her father’s position in the camp is lamented by her mother. At this point, something shifts for the little girl: ‘She would normally be enjoying this peaceful moment spent with her mother, in the small kitchen warmed by the heat of her ironing. But right there, in what her mother said, in those words, something loomed before her, something quite new.’ At this point, Sizun goes on to say: ‘And it’s this secret, intimate world, their world for just the two of them, that the child can suddenly feel slipping away.’
Given that France is just four-and-a-half years old, she has no memory whatsoever of her father; her only points of reference are the photographs dotted around their apartment. Of fathers, and France’s opinion of them, Sizun writes: ‘Fathers are found in fairy tales, and they’re always slightly unreal and not very kind. Or else they’re dead, distant, weak, and much less interesting than their daughters and their sons, who are brimming with courage, spirit and good looks.’
When her parents are first reunited, after rather a traumatic journey, to see her father in the Paris hospital he is being treated in, France soon realises that she has been overlooked: ‘How long will this performance last? The child now feels as if time, which went by so swiftly earlier, has stopped, as if she’s been here for hours, sitting on the end of this bed. She’s been forgotten. They don’t see her. She’s disappeared. She’s not in this world.’ When he returns home, it soon becomes clear that her father’s temperament is tumultuous, and unsteady: ‘His words are always rather knowing, but never the same: gentle one minute, abrupt the next, tender with the mother one minute, formal with the child the next. And then suddenly aggressive. Brutal. Violent.’ After a while has passed, the family dynamics begin to shift beyond France’s comprehension: ‘The child may now have a father but, on the other hand, she might as well no longer have a mother. Because as if by magic her mother is reduced to being a docile wife to her husband, his sweetheart, his servant.’
The structure of Her Father’s Daughter, which uses short, unmarked chapters, works well. The prose, which is relatively spare, but poetic for the most part, makes the story a highly immersive one. Her Father’s Daughter is easy to read, but there is a brooding, unsettling feeling which infuses the whole. Sizun is entirely revealing about the complexities embedded in relationships. Powerful examinations of family are present throughout the novella, along with musings about what it really means to know someone. Even though her protagonist is so young, this is, essentially, a coming-of-age story, where very adult situations are interpreted through the eyes of a child, who has no choice but to learn a great deal about her family, and about herself.
Sizun is a searingly perceptive author, who demonstrates such understanding of her young protagonist. Her Father’s Daughter is an incredibly human novella, which has been masterfully crafted; it is difficult, in many ways, to believe that it is a debut work, so polished does it feel. The novella is well situated historically, and is highly thought-provoking.