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by Annie Ernaux
ISBN 188836369X / 9781888363692 / 1-888363-69-X
Publisher Seven Stories Press
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"My father tried to kill my mother one Sunday in June, in the early afternoon." You'd expect a book that begins with these words to be a raw, anguished account of childhood trauma, but prize-winning French author Ernaux disdains such American-style obviousness. In order to explain why "that Sunday was like a veil that came between me and everything I did," Ernaux focuses not on individual psychology, but on "the codes and conventions of the circles in which I lived, [which determined] the vision I had of myself and the outside world." In a town where a street address reveals social class, where "showing off" is a mortal sin, where even the proper choice of words to describe feelings is rigidly circumscribed, 12-year-old Ernaux was devastated by her father's attack because "I had seen the unseeable ... we had stopped being decent people." To petit-bourgeois shopkeepers like her parents, for whom appearances were everything, such an incident was literally unspeakable--the family never discussed it. Ernaux fills that void with a pitiless portrait of provincial France circa 1952, nailing everything from its penny-pinching economies to its mean-spirited gossip and casual hypocrisies, all governed by the all-important question, "What would people think?" This is a memoir in the classic Gallic tradition: lucid, spare, impeccably reasoned and written, completely devoid of self-pity. There's not an excess word or a facile emotion anywhere in her elegant text, which compels readers' sympathy all the more forcefully by never asking for it. --Wendy Smith [via]