Translated by Hildegarde Searle
Valérie Perrin’s third novel to be translated and published by Europa Editions this July is actually her debut from 2015. Her second novel Fresh Water for Flowers (reviewed here) was a huge bestseller in France, and has been widely translated. That is one of those quiet novels, the story of a French woman’s life, loves and work, that is anything but quiet, being full of drama and romance, laughter and tears.
Forgotten on Sunday has a similar feel, but follows the lives of two women. The first is Justine, who at 21-years-old, works as a carer at a retirement home. She grew up with her grandparents, and her cousin Jules who is like a brother to her.
I grew up with the elderly. I skipped a generation.
I divide my life into three: caring by day, interpreting the old folks’ voices at night, and dancing on Saturday evenings to get back that carefree feeling I lost in 1996 because of grown-ups.
Then at the bottom of just the second page of the novel, we encounter a tragedy, and discover that both Justine’s and Jules’ parents died together in the same car crash, and that their fathers were twins. Justine, our narrator, is now quite matter of fact about it, but their grandmother is understandably reluctant to discuss the death of her sons and their wives at all, having been left with her own mental health issues from it.
At the retirement home, The Hydrangeas, Justine becomes particularly close to one resident, Hélène, who is nearly one-hundred-years-old. Hélène was a seamstress, the love of her life was Lucien, whom she lost and found again. She tells Justine her story and Justine, who loves to write, documents it all in a notebook after their conversations building up a unique history of the woman. Hélène’s granddaughter comes to visit regularly, but when she brings Hélène’s grandson Roman with her, Justine is at first a little flustered. He is the epitomy of Lucien in her imagination, and she can’t help but be attracted to him. He, in turn, is kind to her and encourages her with the writing.
Hélène also encourages Justine to tell her own story and thus we have the two womens’ timelines winding around each other. Justine does have a kind of boyfriend, a young doctor, but she tries to keep their relationship to a friends with benefits status, not wanting to commit but enjoying the physicality of their meetings. In her narration he is called ‘what’s-his-name’ for the most part, which emphasises her state of mind when not at work.
Life at the Hydrangeas is mostly in the background of this novel, but we get glimpses of Justine’s colleagues and some of the other residents and activities on offer. There is also a small sub-plot, in which someone is ringing the relatives of those residents ‘forgotten on Sundays’ i.e. visitorless, to tell them their relative is dead and that they should come, which leads to much confusion, complaints and a puzzle to solve. This immediately made me think of Muriel Spark’s novel Memento Mori, in which elderly folk are telephoned and told to remember that they must die! Yes, it’s the other way around, but has a similar effect.
Once again, the pages flew by as I enjoyed Justine’s and Hélène’s stories. There is light and shade, heart-ache and romance, and the satisfaction of both womens’ lives coming to a point of change on their curve. You can imagine what might happen to Hélène, but for Justine there will be a release, allowing her to move on with a feelgood resolution, despite the drama inbetween. Forgotten on Sunday is a shorter book than Perrin’s two subsequent novels, which are much chunkier. It didn’t feel like an early work, and Searle’s translation caught both womens’ characters well. I was totally engaged by it, and would recommend it as an ideal summer read.
Source: Review copy – thank you! Europa editions, paperback original, 256 pages.
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