Rating 3 stars
Blood Wedding is a psychological crime novel by French writer Pierre Lemaitre. It concerns Sophie, a woman with severe memory loss who, at the start of the book, is looking after a young boy on the days and nights that his busy parents can’t be there. When we meet Sophie, disaster has struck.
The story is split into four parts, and we learn things about Sophie from different external perspectives, none of them truly hers.
The first thing that struck me about this novel was the way Lemaitre doesn’t make Sophie likeable. But nor does he make her unlikeable. She is a puzzle to be unlocked. We are given brief glimpses of her fractured memory so that we can try to piece together what has happened.
The family she is working for at the start of the book seems like a typical well-to-do family. Both parents have demanding jobs that keep them away from home late into the night, making necessary the presence of Sophie in their lives.
The child Sophie cares for, Léo, also seems a typical child. There is no apparent reason for what happens to him. All we know is that Sophie has begun to feel that she needs to leave this job, that she is beginning to loathe Léo, that memories of two suspicious deaths in her past are triggering blackouts, and perhaps deep down she recognises that she is about to do something awful.
The book opens with the apparent consequence of Sophie’s feelings, following a blackout. Slowly she recalls the activities of the previous day. Although she has no memory of doing it, she begins to understand that Léo is dead, killed in a disturbing way briefly described by Lemaitre, and understanding that it seems she is the only person who can have killed him.
In this first section of the book, the observer somehow has inner knowledge of what Sophie is experiencing. It put me in mind of the narrators in Cohen Brothers films. I found this dual narration unsettling. It’s difficult to get to know a character who doesn’t fully know herself, or who is hiding something from herself and therefore us, as readers. Despite that, I found myself rooting for Sophie, caught up in the drama of her flight from the scene of Léo’s murder. This made the wrong footing as further death happens in close proximity to her blackouts all the more effective. How can you root for someone apparently so murderous?
There is a rage to Sophie. What she feels deep inside is described as a black bile and a rage with the world. Her blackouts happen when that rage with the world becomes all consuming. Early in the action, Lemaitre gives us glimpses of what causes the rage. A patronising, sexually opportunistic bank manager. A waiter who humiliates Sophie in public. A young woman who tries to befriend Sophie, holding her up in her moment of escape. An exploitative manager in a fast food restaurant. Sophie, we realise, doesn’t like being challenged or belittled.
I found her rage interesting. I am an angry person, always have been. As a child, I was described as having a temper and was often sent to my room until I could be a nice person again. Frustration with the world still occasionally overspills, but mostly I know how to control it. So at a certain level, I could understand Sophie as a character. The things that trigger her anger are understandable catalysts, things that would make anyone angry, and maybe invite fantasies of retribution. There’s a time and a place for anger, though, and a way of expressing it that doesn’t involve harm to others.
At times, I found myself wondering whether Sophie’s blackouts were real, or whether they were a ploy by an unreliable narrator to excuse the moments when she loses control of her impulses. There’s a suggestion that Sophie’s extreme anger is a sign of a deeper distress, and her blackouts an indicator of her inability to control that distress, a disassociated state that she enters.
And yet, throughout the novel she is extremely resourceful and quick to adapt to the life of a fugitive. She intuits how to throw the police off the scent. She adopts an anonymous, below the poverty line existence. She finds the people she needs to help her change her identity with a calculated calm. She expects life, men in particular, to treat her as an object rather than a person and quickly learns to use it to her advantage.
A newspaper report, that acts as exposition covering the 8 months following Sophie’s flight from Paris, gives the police opinion that Sophie has suffered an extreme emotional response to something, most likely the recent deaths in quick succession of two people she was very close to. Her father, another person we’re told she’s close to, doesn’t hold with this line of thought, according to an unsubstantiated claim in the newspaper. Is there a reason for that? Could her father hold the key to what is going on?
As I read on, I realised that nobody is quite who or what they seem. Lemaitre skillfully drops microscopic hints, embedded in behaviours and reactions, that niggled away at me. It’s a well-paced novel, with secrets opened up at just the right moment. The true horror of Sophie’s situation becomes apparent as the narrative progresses.
I wasn’t as fond of the second section, with its diary entry style, as I was of the rest of the book, but it served its purpose in moving the plot on. The pace picks up over the final two sections, and there’s a slight twist in the narrative, a turning of tables.
Lemaitre is a screenwriter as well as a novelist, and throughout this book I could imagine it being serialised for tv. Not in any clunky way, rather in the way that a good writer constructs plots that are vivid enough to be imagined as a performance.
Lemaitre’s other books include the Camille Verhœven trilogy of detective thrillers, and the ongoing Children of Disaster series of books that examine the impact of war on how people behave. I haven’t yet read any of these books, but on the strength of Blood Wedding, I’ll be investigating soon.
Thanks to Cathy at 746 Books for her excellent review that drew Blood Wedding to my attention.