The Birthday Party by Laurent Mauvignier review – gripping French thriller | Thriller

OROnly two of French writer Laurent Mauvignier’s previous 12 novels have appeared in English: The wound (2015), on the Algerian War of Independence, e In the crowd (2008), which follows four groups of characters on their way to Brussels before the 1985 European Cup Final between Liverpool and Juventus, drawing gruesome tension from the reader’s prediction of the Heysel stadium disaster.

Although Mauvignier’s new novel, The birthday party, deals entirely with fictitious events in the present day, its ruthless narrative logic also makes us read from behind the hands, as we watch its cast stumble into catastrophe. Patrice, a farmer from a remote French village, has traveled to the nearest town to stock up for an after-work party for his wife, Marion, who is turning 40; their daughter, Ida, is on her way home from school to bake cake with an elderly neighbor, Christine, whose dog we’ve just seen mauled 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 will happen next? Amidst the moment-to-moment terror emerges a tangled tale of two darkly connected families, one seemingly happy, the other frighteningly dysfunctional, while the pressure cooker scenario brings the buried secrets of Marion’s premarital life – arson, abuse, murder – bubbling at the surface.

By the time the plot kicks off, we’ve long since tuned into the challenging style of the novel: meandering paragraphs, light on the full stops, fluctuate 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, snapping and crunching with his convincingly spot-on choices, have certainly given his ingenuity a workout.)

Mauvignier seats the reader in the gods, able to oversee the bigger picture as anyone involved in the story can, delving into each of their brains. It is a mode of storytelling most often associated with sympathy, but its main effect here is to generate a crackle – I almost wrote a chuckle – of dramatic irony, an effect magnified by the novel’s English title, The birthday party (in contrast to the less specifically threatening French Stories of the night, or Stories of the night). When Patrice, a bungling Bovary with dirty laundry, arrives home, her mind is a whirlwind of what to serve and how to dress, unaware that the stakes of the evening have changed radically; ditto Marion, coming home from work after duping her line manager in an office dispute.

At times, the horror can’t help but be bitterly funny, not least when the inevitably long-forgotten party guests show up punctually at the appointed time; By the height of the siege, of course, Chekhov’s pistol – in this case a carving knife, pistol and shotgun – had already been highly regarded by prisoners and readers alike.

Mauvignier’s ability to keep the shocks coming — not to mention his knack for revamping a cliché or two, whether he’s writing about Stockholm Syndrome or sex work — are among the qualities that make this gripping novel so uncomfortably effective. Handling dynamic action as well as split-second psychological shifts (a rare feat; think peak Ian McEwan), the entire shebang culminates in an extravagantly choreographed outburst of nearly unbearable danger. And though its abundant pathos comes at the rather steep price of arrogant narrative omniscience, this macabre twist on the marriage portrait novel ultimately invites caution and humility on the thorny question of how much we will ever know about those who are there. closer. It’s hardly a new insight, but rarely has it been so explosively demonstrated.

  • The birthday party by Laurent Mauvignier, translated by Daniel Levin Becker, is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions (£16.99). To support the Keeper And Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply

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