Friday, January 06, 2012
"Grey Souls" by Philippe Claudel opens in December 1917 with the discovery of the corpse of ten year old Belle de Jour just outside a small town in rural France. A swift investigation is undertaken resulting with the arrest and execution of two deserters from the French army. As far as everyone is concerned the perpetrators are caught and dealt with and the case is closed.
But nothing is as it seems, nothing is that cut and dry. The narrator of the story, a police investigator, who remains un-named relates the story of the murder from twenty years in the future when Europe is once more faced with conflict and death.
Slowly and subtly the story behind the murder and the characters involved is told. Central to the case is the Public Prosecutor Destinat. From the beginning the narrator suspects that Destinat is the murderer. The Public Prosecutor is a tragic figure. His wife Clelia died not long after their marriage, and widowed and without an heir he effectively withdrew from the world emerging only to go into the court or for Sunday mass. He is one of the many grey souls which populate the novel.
Lilia, the school teacher is another grey soul who wanders through the novel. She turned up in the town one afternoon without explanation and immediately took up the post of teacher. Lilia is charming and polite, smiling and sincere. But is also distant no one really comes close to her. Her life and subsequent death remain a mystery which is only solved at the conclusion.
It is the narrator himself who perhaps is the greatest mystery. At the start he comes across as being an innocent he is simply one of the crowd. Piece by piece his story is told till by the end the reader is perhaps less sympathetic than previously.
One of the novels strengths is the manner in which minor characters are vividly created. Characters such as Old Barbe, the caretaker who appear for only a few pages are given equal descriptive importance as Destinat and Lilia.
A melancholic atmosphere permeates through the novel, good turns to evil and daylight is driven from the land. Everything and everyone is cloaked in ambiguity. As the narrator is told,
"Nothing’s black or white. And it’s the same with souls. You’re a grey soul, like the rest of us."
Despite the bleak subject matter "Grey Souls" is a novel which is well told, lyrical and enjoyable. The twists at the end are totally unforeseen and will only add to, rather than detract from, its appeal.
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