Book review: The reader on the 6.27

A bestseller in France, where it was first published last year, The Reader on the 6.27 has now been picked up by “one of France’s biggest movie producers” and it isn’t hard to imagine it being turned into something similar in look and feel to Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 hit Amélie. Indeed, in a recent interview the book’s author, Jean-Paul Didierlaurent, said “lots of people have told me that the novel reminds them of the films of Jeunet” – something he considers “un sacré compliment”.

Jean-Paul Didier Laurent - The Reader on the 6.27

The reader on the 6.27

Jean-Paul Didierlaurent

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Mantle, 195pp, £12.99

We’ll have to wait and see what happens, but it is to be hoped that whoever eventually ends up directing the movie version is able to capture the understated charm of the original; because, while the book cleverly manages to avoid tipping over into oversentimentality while wandering dangerously close to the line at times, it wouldn’t take much to transform it into an almighty ­Gallic cheese-fest on the big screen.

The unlikely hero of the piece is Guylain Vignolles – a worker at a paper pulping plant who spends his days feeding unwanted books into the gaping maw of a machine called the Zerstor 500. This beast – and Didierlaurent gives it a wonderful, malign life of its own as “The Thing” – then slices, soaks and pummels the books into a grey mush which is finally “expelled in the form of great steaming turds”. The resulting substance, the narrator observes, “would be used one day to make other books, some of which would inevitably end up back here… The Thing was an absurdity that greedily ate its own shit.”

Out of context, that might sound like an attempt to pass comment on the futility of writing and publishing books, but in fact Didierlaurant is on his way to making the opposite point: his central thesis is that every printed page, however humble in origin, is a little bit sacred.

Vignolles is so embarrassed by his name (reversing the first letters makes it sound like “Vilain Guignol,” or “ugly puppet”) that he spends most of his life trying to remain invisible – with one very notable exception. Every day, while cleaning out the belly of the machine, he manages to rescue a few precious, un-pulped pages, which he then reads aloud on the train to work the next morning, regardless of the subject matter – a performance that is lapped up by the bored commuters around him.

One day he finds a memory stick on the train, downloads the contents and discovers the diary of somebody called Julie, a toilet attendant in a shopping mall. He enjoys her writing so much (and so, I suspect, will you) that he starts to perform extracts to the commuters on the 6.27 and slowly, inevitably, he realises that he is falling in love. The question is: will he have the guts to track Julie down and tell her how he feels?

Didierlaurent has twice won the International Hemingway Award for his short stories, and although The Reader on the 6.27 is billed as his first novel, it’s so slight it barely qualifies as a novella. Not that it needs to be any longer or more convoluted than it is – once the author has set up his ingenious central conceit, it’s almost as if the narrative takes on a life of its own, freewheeling inexorably, enjoyably and even sometimes a little giddily towards its conclusion.

The author finds time to give us some richly imagined characters along the way, too, notably Guylain’s colleague Yvon, a literature-loving security guard who is fond of speaking in alexandrines, and his friend Giuseppe, formerly chief operator at the factory, who lost both his legs to the Zerstor 500 and has subsequently devoted his life to tracking down all the copies he can find of Gardens and Kitchen Gardens of Bygone Days – a book printed on recycled paper containing the remains of his shredded thighs.

In spite of such grisly asides, and the fact that it remains firmly rooted in the grey, soul-sapping world of dead-end jobs and dull commutes, The Reader on the 6.27 is a tale that never loses its capacity to enchant – not by indulging in escapist flights of fancy, but by finding the magical in the everyday.