Writing a novel is easy.
That’s not my opinion. In fact, it goes against my own now-educated opinion, but it’s the impression you might come away with after reading Her Father’s Daughter by Marie Sizun.
To be precise, I’m talking about the translation of Sizun’s novel by Adriana Hunter (who I’ve figured to the best of my ability is probably not the author of the same name and such romances as Rock Hard and Riding Danger, but does have an impressive translation resumé including Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb), put out by Peirene Press.
First, a bit about Peirene. Their tagline is “Thought provoking, well designed, short,” and they’re not kidding. A British press, they’re also not a bad place for American readers to look to be gently shaken up.
As a fan of the experience of reading and carting around French publisher Gallimard’s iconic Folio paperbacks, I was happy to find a similar experience with a French novel in translation from an English-language press. I’ll explain in as few words as possible: In the U.S., if not all of the English-speaking world, reading a book is a whole thing. In terms of literal size. Whether or not you enjoy it, whether you’re guiltily picking up the latest teen fantasy series or Ulysses, these days, you usually walk out of the store announcing your purchase and intentions to everyone around you.
French paperbacks by Folio and Les Éditions de Minuit, on the other hand, are inconspicuous-looking items you can shove in your purse like an impulse buy, a guilty pleasure. French publishers have been criticized for not dressing up their covers more, but you kind of have to admit that the reverse psychology’s worth a shot: Making the rather cocky assumption that books are an obvious consumable that have no need of fancy packaging—like liquor in brown paper bags or porn in black plastic—smacks of confidence that could go a long way in today’s market. However, it’s still possible that French covers could use an overhaul.
Insofar as packaging is a legit concern, Peirene Press seems to have struck an intriguing balance. Their books are quite beautiful, all white and pastels, but not distracting. They’re larger than your standard Folio size, but pleasant to hold. They don’t feel ashamed to be paperbacks. And short? Yeah, short is good.
At least it can be. I read Her Father’s Daughter in one day, intermittently, mostly on my apartment patio. It was a workday, and I read it outside in the sun and between obligations, the way some people might smoke cigarettes.
The novel is a simple story about childhood that reads deceptively easily. The plot is told from the point of view of a young girl named France (not Françoise, France) who experiences her father, who she’s never met before, coming home from WWII. Her perceptions of her parents—their relationship, their love and their strangeness towards her and each other—are painted with short, evocative strokes.
A striking confidence emanates from this book, the kind that suggests its presence was always inevitable. Or maybe simply the same confidence of publishers mentioned above: the kind that assumes you’d just as well read a quiet family drama as watch another episode of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” or have another cup of coffee. Whatever I did or didn’t say before, I’m reminded that this is a confidence that I’m more than ready to welcome in today’s world of books.
Like a lot of (or maybe all) children, France finds out about the adult world by running up against it rather than having it explained to her. At first, her world with her mother is a capsule of purity, full of warmth and light and all she knows. Her father’s return explodes this haven. Eventually, though, it’s his world she seeks to enter, and complications in her relationship with each parent crop up as a result.
This story, at its core, could belong to any number of people, and does—and Sizun’s novel both does it justice and makes it into something new. I do find myself wondering if those of us who grew up with the looming shadow of war in any generation, who listened to stories of distant lands that were severely edited by our fathers to turn them into harmless fairy tales, will find the reading of this story more natural and easygoing than those who didn’t grow up like this. I wonder if, to others, it might seem more dramatic and fraught. But I don’t think so, not necessarily.
This book is part of Peirene’s “Fairy Tale” series, which is appropriately named. What makes Her Father’s Daughter more than just another coming-of-age novel is that, despite its serious subject matter and elements of harsh reality, it reads like a gently-woven bedtime story for adults. For us, these demons and monsters from a previous life have ceased to exist, but we might still like to keep them company on a sunny summer’s day.
There is an element of illusion in this suggestion of detachment, of course, just as there is an element of illusion in Sizun’s writing itself, which suggests a clear, limpid consciousness that spawned a story effortlessly. The idea that the novel could simply form with zero work on the author’s part can’t be any more true than the stories adults tell children to soothe them. But as in childhood, illusion has its place here.
After all, as readers or writers, why would we approach any story without having, to some extent, the expectation that effortless perfection and grace exist inside? Why wouldn’t we give ourselves that gift?