Book review: This Strange Eventful History, by Claire Messud

Based on her own family history, Claire Messud’s masterful novel about “pieds-noirs” exiled from Algeria should stand the test of time, writes Allan Massie

Sometimes when you have read, enjoyed, admired a novel, and then read it again, you may go over the top and declare it a masterpiece. You shouldn’t of course. A masterpiece takes time to settle. How will you remember the novel? Will you have the same high opinion of it next year and in years to come? Nevertheless, there is the word throbbing in your head. Many a novel hailed as such has only a short life. Ca’ canny, an inner voice mutters.

Be that as it may This Strange Eventful History is wonderfully enjoyable, intelligent, perceptive, moving. It may be called a family saga, the family being Claire Messud’s own one, and family sagas are sometimes viewed rather patronizingly these days. They shouldn’t be. It all depends on how the thing is done. That, in fiction, is what matters most, and this one – family history imagined, realized and created in the form of a novel – is done very well indeed. It spans more than a hundred years, though the early years are recovered only at the end of the novel and the narrative begins in June 1940 – ominous month – in Algeria, where a small boy, Francois, is writing to his father, Gaston, a naval officer, currently an attache in Salonica.

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Gaston has sent his wife Lucienne and the children, Francois and Denise, home to Algeria for safety. They belong to Algeria, then a “department” of France, so they are “colons” but poor ones, Lucienne having been a school teacher, and are now lodging with her sister, a midwife. They are the sort of people who, like Albert Camus, are known in France itself as “pieds-noirs” – people of French and other European descent who were born in Algeria during the period of French rule from 1830 to 1962. Only a small part of the novel is set in Algeria, but it is at its heart. When Gaston, after work in the oil industry which has taken him to Argentina and Australia, retires, it will be too Toulon, across the sea from Algeria, paradise lost.

Algiers in January 1939 PIC: AFP via Getty ImagesAlgiers in January 1939 PIC: AFP via Getty Images
Algiers in January 1939 PIC: AFP via Getty Images

Francois will move away, university in the USA, business school in Geneva, and marry an American, Barbara, destined never to be at ease with his devoutly Catholic parents, especially Lucienne who, 13 years older than Gaston, is regarded as a “lay saint”, or indeed with Denise, devout, neurotic, alcoholic, unmarried. Her marriage with Francois, founded in love, will become difficult, as, disappointed, bored with business, he flirts with alcoholism too.

I’m in danger, I see, of making the novel sound depressing, and yes, there is sadness and there are some grim passages including descents into the twilight world of dementia. But it isn’t like that at all, because it is written with such affection and understanding, such an awareness of the passing of time and of the unavoidably bruising nature of experience which is nevertheless redeemed by love, loyalty, and kindness. If Algeria is indeed, incongruously, a lost domain, there is much east of that never-never Eden to explore, respond to, seek out. Messud has written a novel which invites us to look reality in the face, celebrate what it has to offer, and accept what is painful. It is indeed rare to come upon a novel which offers such a cornucopia of pleasure, such a sense of the physical world and the reality of experience.

There are many family novels, and in many the family is seen as something stifling, something to escape from. That temptation is common, felt here in his youth by Francois, but he recalls what his father once told him that “family, for the itinerant certainly, for those with no country, was the home that mattered”.

Most novels have a short life. Most authors, as Dr Johnson remarked, “are forgotten because they never deserved to be remembered”, but even those who deservedly please their own generation will mostly sink into oblivion. How many of Iris Murdoch’s long shelf of novels are now read? How many of Somerset Maugham’s? So yes, I listen to that thin voice saying “ca’ canny!” Nevertheless, I have had such delight from This Strange Eventful History to believe it has endurable quality. A rash prediction? Probably. Nevertheless, it has given me such pleasure that I feel not only sure it will delight readers today, but that is capable of doing so for another generation too. And what, in the end, is a novel for but to give pleasure, enriching our experience?

This Strange Eventful History, by Claire Messud, Fleet, £20

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