Note: Before I started reviewing on my own blog, I reviewed books on Examiner.com. Now that it is ceasing to publish, I am moving my reviews to this site.
If it’s true as Shakespeare wrote that “A sad tale’s best for winter,” then now is the time to be reading Pascale Kramer’s novel, The Child. The first-person narrative follows Simone whose husband, Claude, is dying of cancer. A love-child Claude had fathered eleven years earlier enters their life–first for a meeting and later to stay with them–and the tensions that arise from the presence of the boy, Gael, is the substance of the novel.
Kramer’s presentation of Claude’s physical deterioration is bleak and unblinking.
His salmon shirt clung to his bones; the dark circle of his nipples formed a kind of second expression of astonishment through the transparency of the wet fabric. He had gotten caught in the rain or had tried to relieve the nausea that still dazed his features. His clothes gave off a whiff of diarrhea, Simone realized, hearing the excruciating despair in his voice as he said that he would not be having any lunch.
Typically, such suffering in a character would make him sympathetic, but Claude is difficult, severe, and seems to have no realization how his cancer affects Simone. Even worse, he doesn’t seem aware of how bringing a child of his he had never met into their lives would only make a bad situation worse.
Simone, though, is only slightly more endearing. She sometimes longs for Claude’s death–or at least an escape from her constant care and fear of upsetting him. She would love to feel closeness for the child, but she is unable to manage anything more than fleeting feelings of warmth. She sees herself as caught without the energy or power to struggle for her own freedom.
Gael, too, is difficult to like. He is mischievous and manipulative, and his attempt to run away at one point is both cruel and pointless. Yet at least he has his youth to blame. He doesn’t understand what Claude is going through, and he doesn’t understand why his mother left him for several weeks with these strangers.
Amid this set of broken people, the society around them is breaking as well. The news shows reports of rioting and violence, and the sound of sirens punctuate their days and nights. All in all, it is a life that everyone wants to escape from somehow: Claude from suffering; Simone from responsibility; Gael from confusion.
There is no hint in The Child of rising above the difficulties of life or even hopefulness. Kramer has painted a world and a family that is so sick that even dissolution doesn’t seem to be an escape. In a book where both the present and the past are torments, the future holds little promise.