I'm beginning to suspect that I'll have to place pre-orders for the entire catalog of Europa Editions... Up until now, I've not had a single disappointing experience reading one of the books that they mostly cherry-pick from works published abroad to translate and introduce to a North American readership. Most folks who have encountered their books so far probably did so via The Elegance of the Hedgehog or perhaps another French-language novel that made a lesser splash late last year, A Novel Bookshop. I became a die-hard fan after reading Rondo this spring, and have just finished reading two novellas that I loved and that would make great summer reading -- just meaty enough to make you feel that you have been thinking as well as reading, beautifully written and translated, and featuring a range of fascinating characters.
The first of these is The Shadow of What We Were by the exiled Chilean writer, Luis Sepulveda. In a deftly-written 132 pages, the author has imagined what might happen if some of his fellow political exiles, on their return to Chile, had decided on one last political "action" as a tribute to their radical past and with the assistance of a man known to them as "The Shadow", a veteran anarchist. (Hence the title: the men are "fatter, older, bald or with greying beards" who "still cast the shadow of what they were."
French Leave by Anna Gavalda is less complex and much, much more accessible. Although dealing with a similar kind of reunion among four people, its characters are siblings drawn together by family history and experience, not political activism. And the story is a domestic and social one, revolving around a single weekend in which Garance (the narrator), her elder brother Simon and sister Lola, are supposed to be attending a family wedding along with Simon's rather oppressive wife, who frets about such things as the proper attire, not spoiling the leather of the car seats and other such stuff that Garance considers bizarre and unwarranted. Almost at the church door, the siblings bolt for the chateau where their brother Vincent is working for the summer. Again, it's a story that focuses on rebuilding and rediscovering the ties that behind; although not much happens beyond talk, the reader is aware that the real action is behind the scenes -- the reinforcement of the kind of emotional bonds between them that, when the book ends, will allow each to return to his or her own life with its rewards and challenges. It deals with the role that nostalgia can play in our lives as we approach the age when we realize life will never live up to our childhood dreams of what it can become, and how sometimes we need to cut loose from ugly realities, if only for a few hours. 3.9 stars, also recommended, although it's not going to be as memorable a book for me as Sepulveda's, I suspect.
These were the first books I've read by both authors, although I'm certainly going to be seeking out more that they have written. And after reading these novellas, I'm going to move on shortly to You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik. I got a review copy of this from the Europa folks at BookExpo in late May; it's one of the first titles that will be rolling off their presses in a new series of books by newish North American authors, a series edited by Alice Sebold (of The Lovely Bones fame). Here's hoping the lucky streak holds...