From Nancy Huston, a Canadian writer who's lived in France for a couple of decades, comes a modest proposal in the form of a novel: Maybe millennial fiction shouldn't look forward. Maybe it should look back to the shames and sadnesses of the 20th century. The Mark of the Angel, Huston's U.S. debut and a bestseller in France, tells the story of Saffie, a young German girl who takes a job as a housekeeper in 1957 Paris. Her employer, a brilliant young flautist named Raphael, falls hard for her, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that he finds her "impassive" and "impenetrable." Hard-eyed Saffie seems to sleepwalk through life, and as if in a dream, she and Raphael marry and have a son, Emil. When Raphael sends her off to have his flute repaired one day, he little suspects what he's setting in motion. In András, the instrument maker, Saffie finds a damaged twin. Both are victims of the horrible experiment of Hitler's war: German Saffie has endured not only rape and torture but also the knowledge of her own family's Nazi sympathies. Hungarian Jew András has lost his family and his country. The two embody the horrors that Europeans visited on each other in the middle of the 20th century. And they covertly embark on a five-year affair, during which their love comes to be sorely tested by the Algerian war for independence from France.
Huston's prose is cool, opaque, ironic, and intensely romantic. Her style and her story both owe a great debt to Milan Kundera's Unbearable Lightness of Being, a debt she seems to acknowledge explicitly: "Saffie is crushed, stifled, petrified by the... how to put it... the unbearable tenuousness of the moment... Dizzy with inexistence, she clutches at András's arm--and he, misunderstanding, sets Emil down in a chair on the café terrace--turns to his lover--takes her in his arms and begins to waltz with her... Ah! Thanks to András, the hideous unreality of the world has been held at bay once again, movement has turned back into true movement, instead of immobility in disguise." Kundera's preoccupation with Nietzsche's concept of the eternal return is clearly at work here too: The past, Huston warns us loud and clear, is never past. --Claire Dederer