Loyalties by Delphine de Vigan – review

The French writer’s latest literary thriller needs more intrigue and fewer metaphors

In fiction, the line between writing that is thrillingly spare and prose that is merely disappointingly under-fleshed is a wobbly one. Delphine de Vigan’s complex and gripping psycho-literary thriller Based on a True Story trod this line in unexpected, often chilling ways. The narration was perfect – its tight, almost wilful economy somehow sparking an ambiguity in which you, the reader, became complicit. So I came to this, her new novel, quite ready to have my head messed with, to succumb all over again to whatever whirlwind this intoxicating writer wanted me to reap.

We begin this story with the knowledge that schoolteacher Hélène is concerned about two of her pupils. Théo and Mathis, both 12, are inseparable, always “huddled together”. Not so odd in itself, but Hélène’s teacherly instinct tells her that something is also very wrong. And as the novel is narrated in turns by the teacher, the two boys and one of their mothers, it doesn’t take more than a page or two to find out exactly what’s going down. The boys are drinking alcohol – vodka, rum and anything they can get their hands on – almost every day, partly for the thrill, but mostly in an attempt to numb the pain of their differently dysfunctional home lives.

Theo has a miserable existence where he ricochets back and forth between viciously separated parents and, helpless because his mother won’t talk to him, is watching his hermit father slide ever deeper into a catatonic depression. Meanwhile Mathis’s mother managed to escape her own alcoholic family but is secretly seeing a psychiatrist, still in shock from the recent discovery that her strait-laced husband has a whole other “murky, malignant” life as an internet troll. And it doesn’t end there: Hélène the concerned educator turns out to be an unbalanced emotional wreck, at the mercy of a past that included regular and violent punishment at the hands of a sadistic father.

However much you want to care about these people, it’s hard, as one sketchy chapter follows another, not to feel that what we have here is dysfunction by numbers. It’s not that any one of the issues is by itself implausible. And De Vigan certainly brings all her customary thrilling precision to bear when describing the “moist wave that caresses the back of his neck and spreads through his limbs like an anaesthetic” experienced by young Théo as he drinks. But as well as the precision, we could also do with a little of the suspense and ambiguity that she brought to her last novel. We need things to be a little less straightforward, not to have everything quite so clearly laid out for us from beginning to end. We need, I suppose, to have a little less information thrust at us, and to be trusted to do a little more of our own imagining.

Instead, the characters – with startling yet soon-to-grow-dreary self-awareness – diagnose their own problems pretty much from the start. Théo, with an emotional reckoning well beyond his years, knows that the “clot of hate his mother has kept within her” is the “rotten fruit of a wound”. Hélène, asking herself why, as a child, she told no one about her father’s abuse, straight away ripostes: “But deep down, I know. I know that children protect their parents...” How much more interesting this novel would be if she didn’t know. Oh, for a bit of obfuscation or, even better, an unreliable narrator or two.

Meanwhile, George Miller’s translation does the book no favours. “What do you do when you realise that the back of your stage set is in fact immersed in a marsh that stinks like a sewer?” demands Cecile, reflecting on the shock of her husband’s grim online life. It may work in French, but in English it’s exhausting and definitely a metaphor too far.

It’s a shame because De Vigan is a far better writer than all of this implies. You can’t help feeling that at twice the length and properly fleshed out, muddied with some uncertainty and a handful of unpredictable consequences, a far more uneasy and therefore more powerful novel might have emerged.

• Loyalties by Delphine de Vigan is published by Bloomsbury (£12.99). To order a copy for £9.99 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Julie Myerson

The GuardianTramp

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