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Reading the World: ‘Manderley Forever: A Biography of Daphne du Maurier’ by Tatiana de Rosnay ****

‘As a bilingual bestselling novelist with a mixed Franco-British bloodline and a host of eminent forebears, Tatiana de Rosnay is the perfect candidate to write a biography of Daphne du Maurier. As a thirteen-year-old, de Rosnay read and reread Rebecca, becoming a lifelong devotee of Du Maurie’s fiction. Now de Rosnay pays homage to the writer who influenced her so deeply, following Du Maurier from a shy seven-year-old to a rebellious sixteen-year-old, a twenty- something newlywed, and finally, a cantankerous old woman. With a rhythm and intimacy to its prose characteristic of all de Rosnay’s works, Manderley Forever is a vividly compelling portrait and celebration of an intriguing, hugely popular and (in her time) critically underrated writer.’

9781250099136I love du Maurier, and she is easily one of my favourite authors.  I have also really enjoyed de Rosnay’s work to date, and when I found out about the French publication of Manderley Forever, I willed it to be translated into English as soon as was possible.

I love the way in which Manderley Forever is written.  I found the first section particularly incredibly spellbinding.  There was almost a magical quality to its prose, as well as the story it relayed.  Whilst the rest of the book was undoubtedly fascinating, I do feel as though it unfortunately lost a little of its sparkle.  Perhaps this is because I knew relatively little about Daphne as a child, but was well versed in her life and writing from adolescence onward.  The childhood section was refreshing, I suppose, in that it held some surprises for me.

There is an undoubted admiration on de Rosnay’s behalf, and the whole has been written and researched lovingly.  I really liked the way in which de Rosnay drew a parallel story alongside du Maurier’s biography, by going on a personal ‘pilgrimage’ to all of the places in which du Maurier lived and visited.  De Rosnay is thorough, and presents her subject in such detail.

The section which included du Maurier’s obituaries was a really nice touch, particularly with regard to the legacy which she left behind.  It also drew a very fitting conclusion to the biography.  The translation, too, was flawless.  One can certainly tell that de Rosnay is first and foremost a novelist.  I can only hope that she writes more such fantastic portraits as this in future.

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One From the Archive: ‘The House I Loved’ by Tatiana de Rosnay ****

First published in July 2012.

Tatiana de Rosnay is best known for her novel Sarah’s Key, which was first published in 2006. The author was named one of the top 10 fiction writers in Europe in 2010, data based upon the analysis of bestseller charts across several European countries.

Her newest novel, The House I Loved, opens in Paris in 1869, a turbulent time in which the city is ravaged with change. This follows an order from Emperor Napoleon III, who aims to ‘permanently transform Paris into a modern city’. The novel is based upon real events but is peopled with almost an entire cast of fictitious characters.

Caught amid the terrifying thick of this period is the novel’s main protagonist, Rose Bazelet, ‘an old woman of nearly sixty’. Rose is a strong, determined woman, who flatly refuses to give up her house on the rue Childebert so that it can be torn down by an uncaring government intent upon change. The house in which she and her husband lived – which was ‘nearly a hundred and fifty years old, and had seen several generations of Bazelets’ – was ‘to be utterly demolished in order to build the continuation of rue de Rennes and the boulevard Saint-Germain’. Rose believes that she is ‘not too old to fight back’ and consequently installs herself in her house’s cellar once it is believed that every resident has left their premises for demolition to begin. She stubbornly stays in the city as more and more of her neighbours leave, until the landscape she has grown up with begins to crumble around her.

Rose is alone in Paris. Her daughter Violette, with whom she has a fractured relationship, has moved to Tours with her young family, and her husband Armand passed away ten years before the narrative begins. It is clear from the start that despite his death, Armand is still the focus of Rose’s life. Each action she undertakes, particularly with regard to the house in which he grew up, is done to protect him, and the time she has spent without him has been incredibly hard for her to get through: ‘You have been gone for ten years now. A century to me.’ The couple’s history is gradually revealed, intertwined as it is with the specific social history which had an impact upon the city at the time. The cast of characters in their entirety are set against an almost consistently turbulent backdrop of total change.

The House I Loved is quite historically rich. Amongst other elements rife in Paris at the time, de Rosnay details the uniform of French postmen, the wonder of the ‘Exposition Universelle’, the intricacies of Paris streets which are geographically precise throughout, and the troops of ragpickers who swarm across the city.

The character descriptions throughout the novel work well, but some are certainly more inventive than others. The flower seller on the rue Childebert named Alexandrine Walcker is described as a ‘whirlwind of curls’ with ‘toffee-coloured eyes’ and another character, Gilbert, has a face which is ‘a flurry of gnarled lines like the bark of a withered tree’. Other depictions fall flat, however, and this is particularly true with regard to Violette, who is a lifeless character throughout.

The majority of the novel is told from the first person perspective of Rose. This allows the novel to be evocative from the outset. The opening line sets the scene and the tone for the rest of the story: ‘My beloved, I can hear them coming up our street. It is a strange, ominous rumble… It sounds like a battle… It smells like a battle.’ The narrative is addressed to her late husband throughout, and the voice of her character is rather strong. This directness of style works incredibly effectively and makes the novel seem far more personal than a third person detached perspective would allow. Despite this, however, Rose mentions many details which would be obvious to her late husband – what his own father was like, for example – which do not really work in the grander scheme of the novel.

Letters from Armand and also from other characters who are important to Rose are also woven throughout The House I Loved. Whilst this technique in itself would ordinarily work well with a first person narrative perspective, the letters themselves are so similar in style and content that they could have easily been written by the same character. There is nothing to set the letters apart from one another and their only distinguishable differences are the names which are signed at the end of each. Several of the dialogue exchanges feel a little lifeless and unrealistic at times and some of the language is perhaps a little too modern and colloquial to work effectively within the specific period.

The House I Loved does not merely present the history of a city besieged by her own people, but of one of its inhabitants and the life she has built for herself there, a life which she is more than reluctant to part with. Whilst the scope of the novel is an interesting one, particularly with regard to the social history of Paris, it is more ambitious than the author seems to have realised. The idea of the novel is an interesting and incredibly promising one, but sadly some elements of The House I Loved – the similarity of different narrators and the relationship between Rose and her daughter Violette which is not portrayed in enough depth, for instance – fall short of what could be a wonderful story.

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One From the Archive: ‘The House I Loved’ by Tatiana de Rosnay ***

First published in July 2012.

Tatiana de Rosnay is best known for her novel Sarah’s Key, which was first published in 2006. The author was named one of the top 10 fiction writers in Europe in 2010, data based upon the analysis of bestseller charts across several European countries.

Her newest novel, The House I Loved, opens in Paris in 1869, a turbulent time in which the city is ravaged with change. This follows an order from Emperor Napoleon III, who aims to ‘permanently transform Paris into a modern city’. The novel is based upon real events but is peopled with almost an entire cast of fictitious characters.

Caught amid the terrifying thick of this period is the novel’s main protagonist, Rose Bazelet, ‘an old woman of nearly sixty’. Rose is a strong, determined woman, who flatly refuses to give up her house on the rue Childebert so that it can be torn down by an uncaring government intent upon change. The house in which she and her husband lived – which was ‘nearly a hundred and fifty years old, and had seen several generations of Bazelets’ – was ‘to be utterly demolished in order to build the continuation of rue de Rennes and the boulevard Saint-Germain’. Rose believes that she is ‘not too old to fight back’ and consequently installs herself in her house’s cellar once it is believed that every resident has left their premises for demolition to begin. She stubbornly stays in the city as more and more of her neighbours leave, until the landscape she has grown up with begins to crumble around her.

Rose is alone in Paris. Her daughter Violette, with whom she has a fractured relationship, has moved to Tours with her young family, and her husband Armand passed away ten years before the narrative begins. It is clear from the start that despite his death, Armand is still the focus of Rose’s life. Each action she undertakes, particularly with regard to the house in which he grew up, is done to protect him, and the time she has spent without him has been incredibly hard for her to get through: ‘You have been gone for ten years now. A century to me.’ The couple’s history is gradually revealed, intertwined as it is with the specific social history which had an impact upon the city at the time. The cast of characters in their entirety are set against an almost consistently turbulent backdrop of total change.

The House I Loved is quite historically rich. Amongst other elements rife in Paris at the time, de Rosnay details the uniform of French postmen, the wonder of the ‘Exposition Universelle’, the intricacies of Paris streets which are geographically precise throughout, and the troops of ragpickers who swarm across the city.

The character descriptions throughout the novel work well, but some are certainly more inventive than others. The flower seller on the rue Childebert named Alexandrine Walcker is described as a ‘whirlwind of curls’ with ‘toffee-coloured eyes’ and another character, Gilbert, has a face which is ‘a flurry of gnarled lines like the bark of a withered tree’. Other depictions fall flat, however, and this is particularly true with regard to Violette, who is a lifeless character throughout.

The majority of the novel is told from the first person perspective of Rose. This allows the novel to be evocative from the outset. The opening line sets the scene and the tone for the rest of the story: ‘My beloved, I can hear them coming up our street. It is a strange, ominous rumble… It sounds like a battle… It smells like a battle.’ The narrative is addressed to her late husband throughout, and the voice of her character is rather strong. This directness of style works incredibly effectively and makes the novel seem far more personal than a third person detached perspective would allow. Despite this, however, Rose mentions many details which would be obvious to her late husband – what his own father was like, for example – which do not really work in the grander scheme of the novel.

Letters from Armand and also from other characters who are important to Rose are also woven throughout The House I Loved. Whilst this technique in itself would ordinarily work well with a first person narrative perspective, the letters themselves are so similar in style and content that they could have easily been written by the same character. There is nothing to set the letters apart from one another and their only distinguishable differences are the names which are signed at the end of each. Several of the dialogue exchanges feel a little lifeless and unrealistic at times and some of the language is perhaps a little too modern and colloquial to work effectively within the specific period.

The House I Loved does not merely present the history of a city besieged by her own people, but of one of its inhabitants and the life she has built for herself there, a life which she is more than reluctant to part with. Whilst the scope of the novel is an interesting one, particularly with regard to the social history of Paris, it is more ambitious than the author seems to have realised. The idea of the novel is an interesting and incredibly promising one, but sadly some elements of The House I Loved – the similarity of different narrators and the relationship between Rose and her daughter Violette which is not portrayed in enough depth, for instance – fall short of what could be a wonderful story.

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Sunday Snapshot: Five Books Set in Paris

A new feature for The Literary Sisters is entitled the ‘Sunday Snapshot’.  Each Sunday (if we remember!) we will be posting a list of five books on a common theme or genre.  The first of our Sunday Snapshots takes the beautiful city of Paris as its theme.

1. The Elegance of the Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery
I’ve not seen many recommended reading lists for Paris which do not include Barbery’s wonderful novel.  It tells the intertwined stories of a quirky young girl named Paloma and the concierge of the building in which her family lives, Renee.  Whilst the protagonists on the surface of it seem to have little in common, they form rather a heartwarming friendship.  7 Rue de Grenelle provides the foundation for the relationship they build.  The social and political aspects of the story do not cloud its plot – rather, they add to it and make it a believable and fully rounded tale.  Barbery adds to this her lightness of touch, lovely writing style and deftness at crafting a memorable tale.

2. The Cat – Colette
I waxed lyrical about The Cat in an earlier review posted on The Literary Sisters.  Colette’s stunning writing and the way in which she makes Paris a character in itself makes the novella worth reading alone, whether you are a feline fan or not.

3. Sarah’s Key – Tatiana de Rosnay
This is not a happy novel by any means, but I believe that it is an important one.  It tells the stories of two separate protagonists from different time periods – a young girl named Sarah living in Paris during the Second World War, and a journalist of sorts who is investigating the Vel d’Hiv roundup of 1942, in which Sarah and her family were taken away.  I shan’t give any more of the plot away, but suffice to say that it is a startling and heartbreaking story about a little known event of the Second World War.

4. Down and Out in Paris and London – George Orwell
As with Sarah’s Key, Down and Out in Paris and London is not a happy book.  Far from it, in fact.  It tells, in Orwell’s marvellous style, of his struggles as a burgeoning author in the city.  It is filled with poverty and sadness at every turn, but it somehow still manages to be a fascinating piece of non-fiction of a world which is both lost and still present.

5. The Wine of Solitude – Irene Nemirovsky
It would be an obvious choice to put Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise on this list, but I have opted for one of her lesser known works. The Wine of Solitude opens with the character of eight-year-old Hélène Karol, an only child who lives with her parents, grandmother and governess in a tiny town in the Ukraine. The Wine of Solitude is extremely evocative of the places and period in which it is set, from St Petersburg to Paris, and from Finland to rural France. The different sections of the novel all encompass one or two of these settings, the descriptions of which are perfectly balanced and really build up a picture of each city or tiny town in the mind of the reader. The human psyche has been portrayed incredibly well and so poignantly by both author and translator, and we follow Hélène’s formative years to several different countries as she falls in and out of love and loses her innocence.