The Birthday Party

Laurent Mauvignier, tr. by Daniel Levin Becker

The Birthday Party is the third of Mauvignier’s twelve novels to be translated into English, and this International Booker longlist title gained the Fitzcarraldo seal of approval. I’m a fast reader at the best of times, but I can’t remember a book that left me averaging over 150 pages a day; the pacing and gripping tension make this book fly by.

I see myself as someone not needing a narrative to throw me into a book and can rely entirely on character profiles, but The Birthday Party demonstrates the ideal balance between expert plotting and immaculate analysis of character. The plot itself is quite simple: in a dormant hamlet in France a farmer, Patrice, and his daughter, Ida (half of the area’s residents) are making preparations for the fortieth birthday celebration of their wife and mother Marion. The hamlets fourth resident, Christine, arrived from Paris and has served as aunt-like figure in the childhood of both Patrice and Ida and she is baking the cakes for the party that evening just as the peace is disturbed by an unexpected guest. What unfolds is a tense and dramatic revealing of hidden truths, threat and death. The overwhelming concern surrounding the truth of this terror returns every page. Despite allusions to particular domestic discomforts, the hamlet represented calm and refuge from the city, until chaos disrupts the stillness as the past returns.  With darting access across the various viewpoints of all four residents, new questions and fears constantly emerge.

Despite the intensity of action in the novel, Mauvignier is in no rush to tell this story. The use of rangy and extensive sentences is at time Proustian and it propels the action as your eye rushes down each page. Equally, it offers the scope for deep explorations of each character, posturing sympathies that seem to be tarnished by the end of each chapter just for them to be rebuilt again. The confusion that is felt by those at the party is shared by the reader, and this tension is a torment.

Upon finishing I was left in a daze, and felt a particular numbness that I had never experienced from reading before. The absorbing paragraphs and genuine horror of the book left me unsettled. Mauvignier puts the ‘psychological’ in ‘psychological thriller’ and leaves you questioning how well you can truly know the people you love.

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