13 Rue Therese by Elena Mauli Shapiro
By turns witty and grave, with a powerful sense of the absurd, French writer Elena Mauli Shapiro’s debut novel 13 Rue Therese plunges its reader into a world of war and human longing via a box of mementoes uncovered by a dry-witted American academic, Trevor Stratton.
As he sets about picking away at the mysteries held by each artifact – photographs, notes, letters and cards, even obsolete coins – so unfurls the story of Louise Brunet, her life through both world wars, from young love quickly lost to marriage and infidelity. (Though the Louise of the novel is an invention, there was a real Louise Brunet who lived in the same Paris apartment building as Shapiro when the author was a child – when she died, Shapiro found a box of keepsakes in her apartment.)
The author has plainly delighted in the narrative possibilities afforded by a box of secrets and an intelligent, adventurous and conflicted protagoniste: even as a guilt-stricken Louise frets over the emotional state of her besotted, needy husband, she drops erotic notes to be discovered by her attractive (and married) neighbour, in a bid to provoke an affair.
Despite the potentially maudlin nature of several elements of the tale – Louise and her first cousin, Camille, embroiled in a transgressive affair and separated by the Great War, Camille writing impassioned missives from the gangrenous trenches and Louise penning a Dear John letter that Camille may never read – Shapiro’s descriptions of her characters conspicuously lack sentimentality, and so convey much of life’s messiness.
Take this pithy portrait of Louise’s father, who expires from heart trouble in 1944: “If you were a romantic, you would say: he died of a broken heart. He was, after all, a widower. His wife died when his daughter was born – in 1896. It was a very, very slow broken heart. Maybe it took so long because it kept getting half-mended by the young women he hired to tend to his children.”
Elsewhere, the description of an real Great War photograph is lyrical, sensitive . . . and a little bawdy, as Shapiro analyzes the body language of one soldier, the “mincing fellow in the middle – you can tell just by the jaunty tilt of his cap and the limp wrist on his right leg, crossed tightly over the left – just from looking at this, you can tell the man is queer.”
Of the same image, she muses over the men’s puttees: “In the trenches, they sleep in these. They never take them off – never unwind the bindings. Did you know – each roll of this bandage around the shin is an incantation – truly a binding ritual, meant to keep the meat on the bone.”
In its necessarily speculative nature, 13 Rue Therese reminded me of Kate Mosse’s very good 2009 novel The Winter Ghosts, in which a young man arrives unexpectedly in an isolated, snowbound French village in 1928 and uncovers old tragedies. In both there is a nod to poststructuralism: only so much is fact; it is for the imagination to account for the rest.
For lovers of historical romantic fiction that is devoid of cheesiness, dedicated to authenticity, and amusing and touching in equal parts, it can get no better. 13 Rue Therese is a treat, a triumph and an exceptionally exciting debut.
Previously reviewed on Coast.co.nz
Reviewer: Stephanie Jones