When Camille receives a letter describing events from pre-war France, she is sure that the writer has got the wrong address. When the letters continue to arrive, she starts to suspect one of her authors, pitching a new novel in a different yet sneaky manner. But as the letters keep coming, they tell the story of Louis and Annie, struggling with their own personal drama against the back drop of war. Camille becomes wraps up in the story as she slowly comes to realise that she is not a random recipient.
When the novel opens, Camille’s mother has just died and the last of the condolence letters had dropped through the door. Set, in part at least, in 1970s Paris, this allows the letter format to be less out of place than today. An untraceable correspondence full of secrets and lies; a confession on behalf of others.
When the letters start, they sound like a very normal tale of a boy and a girl in rural France, but soon artistic Annie is whisked off to Paris by a glamorous woman merely known as Madame M. In her naivety, on learning of her friend’s infertility, Annie offers to bear a child on her behalf. In the years after the Great War, there was a huge push to repopulate France and having children was practically their patriotic duty. But as you can imagine, a simple act of kindness can soon turn nasty and The Confidant soon turns into a gripping tale.
Just as Camille starts to crave the next instalment, the reader will want to keep going until the shattering end. It’s one of those books I instantly wanted to go back and read again. Whilst the modern day story was relevant, it didn’t take over and didn’t leave me feeling it was getting in the way of the historical one. Overall it’s a wonderfully well balanced time-slip novel. Camille’s circumstances mean that the unfolding story resonates with her and there are some connections, perhaps more would be made on a re-read. Hindsight is such a useful thing!
Originally written in French by Hélène Grémillon, The Confidant has been translated into English by Alison Anderson and is now available in paperback and book editions from Gallic Books. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review. But before you go away, Hélène also took the time to answer some of my questions on The Confidant…
What was the inspiration behind The Confidant?
My wish from the start was to write a conflict between two women.
What drew you to WWII as a back drop for The Confidant?
I was trying to work out what the issue between the two women could be, knowing that I didn’t want to just be a fight for a man. At the same time, I was looking for a birthday present for a friend who is a doctor, and I was in a bookshop of ancient “medical” books. I was intrigued by the title of a book on a table in front of me: Hygiene and physiology of marriage, natural and medical history of a married man and woman. I flicked through and read the chapter on sterility and in that moment, I knew that my story would centre around this problem, and during the Second World War.
Do you feel that letter writing is a lost art and did that play a part in setting the “modern” part of the novel in the 70s?
Of course we write fewer and fewer letters today, even I don’t write any, it’s a genre that terrifies me, now that we’re keeping what we having to say short and quick. I felt a renewed love for the “art” whilst I was writing The Confidant, even if we can’t say that they’re typical letters. I had in the corner of my mind Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Laclos in the corner of my mind whilst I was writing. It’s a wonderful epistolary novel.
What involvement do you have in the translation process? Is it different depending on the language?
The cases have been different. Some translators contacted me, or asked to meet me to ask questions, and to produce the best work, hand in hand with me. I’m thinking primarily of my Dutch, Chinese and Hebrew translators. I loved meeting them; it was very exciting and very rewarding. I love the human contact through the text. But as I don’t speak those languages, my involvement stopped there. The translation on which I worked the most was the English text, and I read the different versions. The Americans too kept me informed when they wanted to make adjustments. I never thought about translations when I was writing The Confidant, yet it’s one of the best things to happen to me with this book.