Agnes is in her late twenties, married to Earl and living in America in the 1960s, when she hears about the death of her childhood friend, Fabienne. It’s mentioned, almost in passing, in a letter from her mother, who still lives in Saint Remy in France, the farm village where Agnes grew up. Upon hearing this news, Agnes reflects on her childhood with Fabienne, which is the main focus of the novel (not to mention Agnes’ life). As young girls coming of age in the later 1940s and 1950s in a rural French town, they don’t have much but each other. For Agnes, it feels like enough. Both of their families experience loss – Fabienne’s mother has died, her widowed father drinks, and her elder sister died in childbirth (an echo of which will haunt their family as Fabienne also suffers this fate many years later). While both girls are used to living with very little, it’s clear that Agnes’ family is a little more respected – both of her parents are alive, her elder sisters are married. Her brother Jean was, for reasons unexplained, interred in German camps during the war, and since his return he remains bedridden and ill. Agnes explains all of this dispassionately – she doesn’t dislike her family, but nor do they mean much to her emotionally. No one means as much to Agnes as Fabienne.
One day, Fabienne suggests they play a game – they write a book, full of stories about children dying and enduring or witnessing monstrous acts. They involve the recently widowed postmaster in their town, and with his help their book is published under Agnes’ name. She becomes something of a sensation – this child prodigy who wrote such a disturbing book – but the reality is that Agnes didn’t actually write this book, Fabienne dictated it to her. Agnes has her own sensibility and poetic way of viewing the world, but the book is really the product of Fabienne’s mind. The novel’s publication opens additional doors for Agnes – but one heartbreaking door remains steadfastly closed against the girls as they grow into the women they will become.
This book was beautifully written – Li has such a strong point of view about the world, and her writing is gorgeous. I thought that parts of the book were a bit uneven – I was not quite as interested in Agnes’ life when she traveled to England to live in a boarding school for a time, a setting that never felt fully realized. Maybe that’s because this book is light on plot, heavy on vibes. Li is fully capable of crushing us with her beautiful prose and heartbreaking scenarios – but for all it’s subtlety, there was something that didn’t quite feel convincing about the depth of the power these girls held over each other. I’m glad that I read this, but it didn’t merit five stars for me.
CBR15 Passport – category 2 (different country – set in France / England)