Not quite the same old story


By Faza Gune, translated by Sarah Adams

Chatto & Windus, 224pp, 5.99

FAZA GUNE'S SLIM BUT INSPIRED first novel - a hit in France - opens with a glossary. In it, we learn that the phrase kif-kif - the book's original title is Kiffe Kiffe Demain - is Arabic for "same old, same old" or "it's all the same". The saying is also a refrain of the book's charmingly sourpuss narrator, Doria, a 15-year-old Muslim girl living in a housing scheme outside Paris.

Doria has plenty of cause to be bitter. Her father, frustrated by his wife's failure to produce a son, has returned to Morocco in search of a new bride. To make ends meet, Doria's illiterate mother, Yasmina, cleans rooms at a motel where, in the words of her daughter, she flushes "the toilet after rich folks, all to be paid three times zero" and her supervisor never bothers to learn her real name. "It must really give Monsieur Winner a charge to call all the Arabs 'Fatma', all the blacks 'Mamadou' and all the Chinese 'Ping-Pong'," Doria says. "Pretty freaking lame." As Doria assesses the lives of her neighbours in the scheme, she sees little evidence of success gained by means other than lottery tickets and crime.

Gune, who is of Algerian descent and wrote the book while in her teens, knows her material. She grew up in a housing scheme in Pantin, outside Paris. French readers' attempts to understand last year's riots in such heavily Muslim suburbs boosted her sales, but the novel isn't just a political tract. What makes it appealing is its sharply drawn profile of a precocious adolescent.

In Sarah Adams's colloquial translation, the narrator's scorn extends to areas unrelated to the socio-cultural circumstances of her family. A state-appointed shrink smells like "anti-lice shampoo". A classmate enlisted to help Doria with her homework is a "fat loser". A social worker has a "scary voice, the kind of voice you can imagine saying: 'I am Death! Follow me, it's your time!'". In this way and others - her propensity to daydream about Hollywood stars, her obsession with acne and breast size, her aversion to phoniness and unctuousness in others - Doria is a typical teen. Occasionally, her carping evokes Catcher in the Rye's Holden Caulfield. "I've had enough of school," she announces. "It gets on my nerves and I don't talk to anybody. Really, there are only two people I can talk to for real anywhere."

Gune's slang expressions, paired with the use of the present tense, occasionally make this read more like a series of adolescent diary entries than a novel. Yet her dry wit elevates the book above juvenilia. "He's always high and I think maybe that's why I like him," Doria says of a much older, Rimbaud-spouting drug dealer on whom she harbours a crush. A family friend's husband who spends half the year in Algeria with his second wife and the other half in France with his first, "knew how to hit the right balance, rein himself in. He does it part-time." Riffing on the Arabic phrase "inshallah", or "God willing", Doria remarks, "But, thing is, you can't ever know if God's willing or not."

There are even hints of poetry. "Outside, it was grey like the colour of our building's concrete and it was drizzling in very fine drops, as if God were spitting on all of us," Gune writes. Perhaps the most startling aspect of Just Like Tomorrow is its heroine's voluminous knowledge of US popular culture, particularly the schlocky programmes she watches on French TV, including Wheel of Fortune and The Price Is Right. As Doria says: "If they cut off our TV like they did with the phone, it will be too much. It's all I have."

By the novel's end, Doria has begun to see that reality has far more to offer her than any hokey set-up on her TV screen: a new school; a new job for her mother; even a first boyfriend, who inspires the pun that informs the book's title. According to the glossary, the French verb "kiffer" means, more or less, "to be really crazy about something". As she begins to enjoy at least some elements of her existence, Doria's refrain changes, too - from bitter to hopeful, and also from Arabic to French. It's unclear whether this means she's become better disposed toward France. Either way, as Doria stops lamenting and starts living, the reader can't help cheering.

Faza Gune is at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Sunday 20 August.

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