29 September 2020

Laurent Mauvignier: Histoires de la nuit (2020)

Laurent Mauvignier's Histoires de la nuit was published earlier this month and isn't among the fifteen novels long-listed for the Prix Goncourt, although that rather surprises me. And although this is a psychological thriller, it bears the mark of Mauvignier's other books in many ways: pointilliste writing, trauma and the unspoken at the fore, and the psychology of the characters foregrounded to the actions. All the same, there is much action here, but even that is crammed into less than forty-eight hours in a 635-page novel, so this is Mauvignier's longest by far.

The hamlet La Bassée has come up as a name a few times before in Mauvignier's work, and here virtually all the action takes place in it. Patrice Bergogne, whose two brothers have left the farm after his father's death, has decided to continue the family business and lives in the hamlet with his wife Marion (found on the internet, much to his delight) and ten-year-old daughter Ida. Marion is six years younger than him, has studied printing and works for a printing company in the small (pop.  3000) town nearby and will shortly be celebrating her fortieth birthday.

There's an empty property for sale in the hamlet which the Bergognes are selling, although so far only a few Dutch and English have shown any interest, but eventually backed out. La Bassée really is almost in the middle of nowhere, which is why it has appealed to Christine, a Parisian artist of 67 who likes the anonymity of the place, and who is often driven into town by 'Bergogne' as she calls him, whom she sees almost as a son. The story – and there very certainly is one, although it is deliciously, tantalisingly drawn out in the minutest of detail – begins with a kind of Hitchcockian MacGuffin in which Bergogne once more has taken Christine to the police station to lodge a complaint about an anonymous threatening letter she's received, which (like the former ones) is increasingly menacing. But that's more or less all we hear of the letters, although they remain in the background for some time.

And then Marion's past revisits her, in the terrifying shape of a trio of brothers: by age downwards, Denis, Christophe and Bègue. In dribbles, we learn of Marion's past in a place 500 kilometres away, of the life she ran away from, of her sexual promiscuity, the drugs she took, her life with the violent Denis, her being an accomplice with him in a killing but escaping imprisonment, of her escape (pregnant with Ida) to another life while he spent ten years behind bars. Daddy Denis has come back for revenge.

As I said in the first paragraph, trauma is one of Mauvignier's preoccupations: Marion has had a miserable childhood, and her penniless, alcoholic mother slashed her wrists in the bathroom of a hotel she couldn't afford; Bergogne has been taught by his parents to be completely selfless, only to care for the interests of others, and after two rather fruitless relationships he marries a woman who wants to flee from her past and doesn't believe in love; Bègue has a history of psychiatric illness and is used by his brothers; Christine is escaping from the cultureless idiots in Paris who would rather talk about the quality of the champagne at her exhibitions than her paintings, etc.

And then there's the unspoken, which is so deafening in Mauvignier's work: Bergogne's sexless marriage and his resort to prostitutes; Marion's silence about her past; Christine's blanking out of previous married lovers to the police, which may have provided them with motives for the poison pen letters; Ida's silence to anyone because who would believe a ten-year-old?, etc.

The title Histoires de la nuit relates to the bedtimes stories Marion tells her daughter, also of course to the stories the reader learns on the night of Marion's blood-drenched birthday, and to the histories of the protagonists. This is a masterly performance by Mauvignier, although perhaps slightly overdone: the ending is full of violent horror, the baddies get their just deserts, on the plus side we're not too sure about the ultimate survival of Christine and Marion, but Ida as deus ex machina is surely a little clichéd? I loved it, but as it's so packed with suspense and blood I can't help thinking that Mauvignier is going for the money.

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