Boxes by Pascal Garnier – #ReadingtheMeow2024 #20booksofsummer24

Translated by Melanie Florence

It’s a while since I read any Pascal Garnier novellas. Gallic Books have published translations of twelve of his dark tales told with an even darker sense of humour after the prolific author turned towards noir in the 1990s, and Boxes is the fifth I’ve read, so plenty of treats still in store (I, naturally, have the full set, read my reviews too of A26, The Islanders, Too Close to the Edge & A Long Way Off).

I chose Boxes this time because it has a cat on the cover, and I was hoping that a cat would feature within too, thus meeting Mallika’s Reading the Meow 2024 challenge. I mean, just look at those imploring eyes on the cover! I’m pleased to report that there is a cat inside whom we’ll meet in a mo.

As the novel begins, Brice is just finishing packing up his and Emma’s appartment in Lyon, entrusting their worldly goods to the removals men, for their move to the countryside in the house they’d bought together. Emma isn’t there, and Brice is annoyed at having been left on his own with the move. He arrives at the house, and the church bell strikes one with a ‘deafening clang’.

‘What the hell am I doing here? What on earth possessed us to buy this dump? I must have been drunk. That’s it I was drunk.’
The house seemed enormous, far bigger than when he had visited it two months earlier with Emma.

He struggles to find and unpack a few things, the bare necessities to get going. He set up a camp-bed and table, battles with a tin of quenelles, downed a bottle of wine – then the clock struck eleven, ‘using his head as an anvil.’

During the following days, he explores the tiny village, has his hair cut by bosomy Martine, buys a sledge hammer to knock through the kitchen into the diner, and meets Blanche, a strange woman all dressed in white, who lives alone in the big house on the edge of the village.

His in-laws ring to ask how he’s doing, if he’s taking his medication, urging him to get help. Forty pages in it’s becoming clearer that Emma is probably dead and that’s Brice is the only person who doesn’t believe it. Brice, in his late forties, an illustrator of children’s books, at met Emma, a journalist, in the best years of her thirties at an art exhibition and they hit it off instantly despite the age gap.

Occasionally he would ask her, ‘Why me, Emma?’ She would smile and, with a kiss, call him an old fool, pack her case and go off to report from Togo, or Tanzania, or somewhere else. At first, with every trip he was afraid he would never see her again but, strangely, she always came back.

Then a cat appears in the house. How it got in, heaven knows.

In front of the fridge door, seated squarely on its bottom, tail nearly framing its paws, whiskers bristling, eyes bright and ears pricked up, a cat was looking at him with all the hauteur its little frame could muster. […] The look in its eyes was like that of Bombay beggars, disdainful and at the same time suffering. …
‘The cat was created to give man the pleasure of stroking a tiger.’ Brice had never wanted to stroke a tiger. He had never owned an animal, neither goldfish, canary nor tortoise.

So Brice becomes a reluctant pet-owner, sharing his food with the creature who remains unnamed, but provides companionship to the lonely man.

The first half of this novella explores Brice’s grief and loneliness as he is left in limbo in a strange house in a place he doesn’t know, surrounded by boxes which he mostly can’t bear to unpack. The corresponding grief experienced by Emma’s parents explodes off the page too at once stage. Life for Brice begin to get complicated though, as everyone in the village tells him how he is the dead spit of Blanche’s late father, and Blanche cultivates his friendship much to her protector Élie’s dismay. And predictably events come to a dark head, as Blanche realises that Brice will never leave (the memory of) Emma for her, and the cat will play its part too! Blanche is even more mentally unstable than Brice.

It’s all very sad, and there’s less of Garnier’s characteristic humour running through this one, although Brice’s haircut experience does give us a breather and there are a few other similar funny scenes to leaven the grimness of the main narrative, including Blanche’s recipe for making packet pea and ham soup perfectly. I tend to agree with Guy Savage’s review in that Boxes has a weak plot compared with some of Garnier’s others, but even his least sparkling novella is at least frizzante – and it has a cat!

Source: Own copy. Gallic Books (2015), paperback, 169 pages.

BUY at Blackwell’s as an individual paperback via my affiliate link (free UK P&P), or in anthology with 3 of his others here.

13 thoughts on “Boxes by Pascal Garnier – #ReadingtheMeow2024 #20booksofsummer24

  1. kimbofo says:

    As you know, I’m a recent convert to Pascal Garnier and this one is in my reading queue so I’ve only skimmed your review but will come back once I’ve read the book.

  2. A Life in Books says:

    Coincidentally, I’m reading a novel featuring a cat who turns up on a lonely man’s doorstep offering solace and companionship. Not nearly as dark as this one sounds, though. I hope it ends well for both cats.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      A great coincidence indeed, unless you were reading it for Read the Meow… This one was dark, but not Garnier’s darkest!

  3. mallikabooks15 says:

    This does sound rather dark but then grief can be that. Glad there are the lighter moments tempering it though. I’ve never read Garnier but sounds like he is well worth exploring. Glad the cat had a strong part in this one–they really are such a comfort. Thanks so much for this contribution to Reading the Meow–I’m always pleased to find a new to me author and title.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      This was one of Garnier’s lighter ones! Most of the others have some even more deranged characters and are very dark, but always with some dark humour running underneath. They are all short novels too which makes them very impactful. The cat does survive, but I was careful not to say how it is involved at the climax – I shall tease you with that!!!

  4. Calmgrove says:

    It was I think your review of Garnier’s A26 that persuaded me to try this author, and now I’m quite tempted by this too. 🙂 I wonder if the habit cats have of finding and taking instant possession of an empty cardboard box or container relates to the title? I hope it does!

  5. Bookstooge says:

    I was going to comment about how dark this sounded, but after reading all the comments where you state this was one of his lighter stories, I’m kinda worried 😀 Glad you enjoyed it though…

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Only lighter in that it’s less grotesque and the very dark humour is less to the front. Grief, its main theme can never be light, but this one is less dark than the others of his I’ve read – fractionally! Basically, all his books are dark and grotesquely funny but to different degrees. They’re all short too.

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