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Book review: The Last Life by Claire Messud

This book really brought to life what it is to live inside the head of a 14 year old French girl.  It brought back the headiness, terror and sensuality of adolescence even better than my own memories could.

I’d read a few reviews of The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud’s latest book, and wasn’t sure about it. I was attracted to the fact that the main character seemed to have a very strong personality.  However the reviews were out on whether Messud made a complete success of coupling this with a realistic and sympathetic portrayal or not.

While I was look at The Woman Upstairs, I came across another of Messud’s novels, The Last Life which had some great reviews. This is the story of 14 year old Sagesse LaBasse, a girl who lives in late eighties/early nineties France with her American mother and French-Algerian father.  Sagesse’s  grandparents and father are returnees from the formerly colonised and now independent Algeria and now run a family hotel business.

The story centres around the LaBasse family’s internal battles.  Sagesse’s grandfather is arrested for a crime and what follows is the unravelling of Sagesse’s life as her friends react to this, and a description of the internal battles of the family, and also of its history.

Structurally, the novel seems on first glance rather shapeless. Lots of individual dramas, but no plot arc. There is no crescendo to a single obvious climax, no answers to questions.

What is more pressing than the tension of the story though is the beauty with which it is told.  There is wider beauty in the grandness of the themes of racial tensions and political history, but this often narrows right down to the details of Sagesse’s world.  The dreamy, thorough descriptions are the most outstanding feature of the book.  They are lush, but never over loaded with words. For example, the effect of disastrous birth of Sagesse’s brother Etienne on the family is described variously as the:

“Clanging of their prison door” for Sagesse’s parents, who subsequently “rose to their fate with Catholic dignity.”

For Sagesse, her brother represents ambivalence: “…we would share what words we possessed. I would move for him, too, and bring home to him the smells of the park, the beach, the schoolyard. We would be fine.”

but “I despised him as much as I loved him; he was – he is – my limitation.”

This is just a tiny example, but it would be impossible to list everything, as the whole book just runs through with these descriptions.

Sagesse herself is a sympathetic character.  Another unusual and outstanding feature of Sagesse is that she is presented as totally adult in her outlook.  She may be inexperienced and placed in difficult circumstances that she cannot handle sometimes, but she is always portrayed as having a certain wisdom, which gives a depth and authenticity to her portrayal; when we are fourteen, we do not see ourselves as naïve.  At fourteen, just as we are for the whole of our lives, we are at the current peak of our knowledge. We have never known more than we do now.

There is escape and redemption for some of the characters, who show their inner strength; internal growth gives the novel its shape, rather than external action.  And for others there is a downward spiral.  There’s a pretty clever twist right in the last paragraph too.   It’s a wise, sophisticated book throughout, never shouting about it, but just living with it, like Sagesse herself.


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