Only two of French writer Laurent Mauvignier’s 12 previous novels have appeared in English: The Wound (2015), about the Algerian war of independence, and In the Crowd (2008), which followed four groups of characters en route to Brussels ahead of the 1985 European Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus, drawing grisly voltage from the reader’s foreknowledge of the Heysel stadium disaster.
Although Mauvignier’s new novel, The Birthday Party, deals wholly with fictitious events in the present day, its remorseless narrative logic likewise has us reading from behind our hands, as we watch its ensemble cast stumble into catastrophe. Patrice, a farmer in a remote French hamlet, has driven to the nearest town to stock up for an after-work celebration for his wife, Marion, turning 40; their daughter, Ida, is on her way home from school to get cake ready with an elderly neighbour, Christine – whose dog we’ve just witnessed being butchered by intruders who are about to take them both hostage.
Four hundred pages of agony remain. Our compulsion is basic but extreme: why is this happening? And what’s going to happen next? Amid the moment-by-moment dread emerges a knotty tale of two obscurely connected families, one superficially happy, the other luridly dysfunctional, as the pressure-cooker scenario brings the buried secrets of Marion’s premarital life – arson, abuse, murder – bubbling to the surface.
By the time the plot kicks in, we’ve long tuned in to the novel’s demanding style – snaking paragraphs, light on full stops, flit between each character’s experience. (The translation is by Daniel Levin Becker, an American writer attached to the experimental Oulipo movement; the endlessly segmented sentences, which snap and crunch with his convincingly apt choices, surely gave his ingenuity a workout.)
Mauvignier sits the reader up in the gods, able to oversee the bigger picture the way no one involved in the story can themselves, burrowing into each of their brains. It’s a mode of storytelling most often associated with sympathy, but its main effect here is to generate a crackle – I almost typed cackle – of dramatic irony, an effect amplified by the novel’s English title, The Birthday Party (contrast the less specifically ominous French Histoires de la nuit, or Stories of the Night). When Patrice, a Bovary-ish bungler with dirty laundry of his own, arrives home, his mind is awhirl with what to serve and how to dress, unaware that the stakes of the evening have dramatically changed; ditto Marion, driving home from work in the afterglow of outfoxing her line manager in an office dispute.
At times, the horror can’t help but be bitterly funny, not least when the invited party guests, inevitably long forgotten, duly appear at the appointed hour; the height of the siege, naturally, Chekhov’s gun – in this case a carving knife, a pistol and a hunting rifle – having already been much eyed by captives and readers alike.
Mauvignier’s ability to keep the shocks coming – to say nothing of his knack for renewing a cliche or two, whether he’s writing about Stockholm syndrome or sex work – are among the qualities that make this riveting novel so nastily effective. Managing dynamic action as well as split-second psychological shifts (a rare feat; think peak Ian McEwan), the whole shebang culminates in an extravagantly choreographed set-piece blow-out of nigh-on unbearable jeopardy. And even if its abundant pathos comes at the somewhat high price of overweening narrative omniscience, this macabre twist on the marriage-portrait novel ultimately invites prudence and humility on the thorny question of how much we can ever know about those closest to us. Hardly a new insight, for sure, but rarely can it have been demonstrated quite so explosively.
The Birthday Party by Laurent Mauvignier, translated by Daniel Levin Becker, is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply