The Woman Who Didn’t Grow Old by Grégoire Delacourt
Translated by Vineet Lal
Back in 2015 I read Delacourt’s first novel, The List of My Desires, which was a heart-warming French charmer of a novel – if you enjoy the books of Antoine Laurain or Jean-Paul Didierlaurent, you’d probably enjoy Delacourt too. The Woman Who Didn’t Grow Old is his fourth novel to be translated into English, this time by Vineet Lal. As you might guess from the title, it’s inspired by Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Grey.
Betty was thirteen when her mother was killed by a car as she danced coming out of the cinema, her mother was thirty. Delacourt takes us through her life, year by year. She’s eighteen when she meets André, who is a few years older than her and apprenticed to become a carpenter. When she is twenty, André has to go and work around France to complete his training and become a compagnon. At twenty-three he gets down on one knee and Betty says yes, at twenty-six she is the mother of a one-year-old. But she is lonely, for André’s job as a master-craftsman takes him away for months at a time – but the reunions are good. Through her friend Odette, Betty makes the acquaintance of Fabrice, a photographer.
‘Try not to smile.’
At thirty, I became a model fo Fabrice’s grand photographic project, ceremoniously entitled ‘On Time’.
For twenty years now, he’d been taking pictures of models each year, on a set date; one day, he explained, I don’t yet know when, I’ll turn this into a detailed study of how time affects the human face. Youth is fascinating, it’s a magnet, and you feel so much pain when it’s vanished and gone. The model I started out with was twelve at the time, now he’s thirty-two.
Betty is the same age as her mother when she died, and that photo freezes her in time, each year when she returns to Fabrice to have her picture taken, she hasn’t aged at all. At first, it is wonderful to be told you look young for your age, but as her son grows up, and her husband and friends all age, it becomes increasingly difficult to be with them and she loses both for a while. What can Betty do? In a reversal of Dorian Gray, she’d sell her soul to age normally. Delacourt comes up with a solution which feels very French! I can’t say more.
Going from the mid-1950s through to the present, Delacourt peppers Betty’s story with many cultural references from films, celebrities and fashions through the years, reflecting the changing times that Betty’s appearance doesn’t. The short chapters for each year mark the passage of time, and as Betty comes to realise, the appearance of youth isn’t everything, love, friendship and good memories are far more important. Written in a deceptively light and breezy style, I was engrossed by this novel, short enough at just over 200 pages to be read in a single session, and a second read for Paris in July hosted by Thyme for Tea. (8.5/10)
Chris Emery – Depth Charge: Poems
After managing to read quite a lot of poetry after being spurred on by Joe Nutt’s book on overcoming metrophobia (fear of poetry) last year, I’ve slipped a bit this year, only reading one collection so far (Matthew Haigh’s Death Magazine) until recently. Then, I received a rather lovely pamphlet of poems by Chris Emery out of the blue and very much enjoyed reading then. Emery co-founded Salt, the Cromer, Norfolk based publisher and was their poetry editor for some years, with three collections to his name with them too. This independently published sixteen page pamphlet or chapbook (if you prefer that term) is a rather lovely thing, A5 sized with marbled inside covers, and illustrations in a mix of colour and monochrome to accompany the poems.
Many of the poems are inspired by the natural world, by Norfolk and its wildlife; from Cromer’s seaside, to the boom of the bittern, a wild path or snowdrops. (I will admit, that although I lived and worked in Great Yarmouth for a year and a half, I never visited Cromer just up the road or the wilder parts of Norfolk – apart from a few Norwich pubs!). In my defence, I was young and hastened back to a boyfriend in Essex most weekends. I really should visit these areas properly now I’m old enough to appreciate their flat, eerie beauty and wildness.
I adored the first poem, ‘Edgelands’, and urbanite that I am, the intrusion of modern life into nature made me smile (in recognition rather than approval), capturing the essence of the poem’s title.
New 4x4s line the flint pocked / esplanade as each cream tide subsides / from remedial concrete plateaux / and all our four o’clock predicaments / undo in derelict rooms / where no eyes dream of hired gold. / Life spreads out its bedspread / in the sad afternoon ….
‘Self-Portrait with Angela’ chimed with me for nostalgic reasons, imagine a gang of kids in their den in the late 1970s – took me right back.
A tortured June of Angela and Kate Bush. / Eternal, short-cropped Angela, / whose cartwheels leavened each / twilit hot pants evening. …
… unwrapping bagsful of Mojos / and Black Jacks before sharing out Spangles. / How could it work, this sainted life? / Flared jeans and Clarks shoes, / my sweaty hat pressed flat / over helmet hair / and seven o’clock lust.
A lovely set of poems. Thank you to Chris for sending me them. Depth Charge is available directly from the author: more info here.
The Maths of Life and Death by Kit Yates
I was sent this book by the publisher a couple of months ago, and although it was published last year, lockdown has been the perfect time to read it. Dr Kit Yates is a Senior Lecturer in mathematical biology at the University of Bath. Studying maths at university Kit realised that maths can be applied to describe virtually anything, and thanks to an inspirational lecturer found himself studying how to apply mathematics to nature: from locusts swarming to patterns on eggshells, but also to modelling how deadly diseases spread – the maths of epidemiology.
Coming through the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve all become familiar with many of the associated terms like ‘R-number’ and ‘herd immunity’ and Yates illustrates them by looking at ebola epidemics and vaccination rates. This topic though forms the last chapter of this fascinating book, there are other less familiar mathematical applications to look at first.
You don’t need to be a mathematician to appreciate this book, there are no equations, although there are a few graphs and diagrams (equations masquerading as pictures, but more understandable because of that). Yates begins by teaching us about exponentials, when an object grows or multiplies in proportion to its size – repeated doubling etc. From cell division to nuclear bombs and carbon dating, you can also apply the principles of exponential growth to memes going viral and then dropping in interest. The next chapter looks at medical testing – particularly DNA profiling – something many may think about doing as part of tracing their ancestry. But these DNA tests also claim to give you all kinds of health data, % of getting this or that and so on – how reliable are these figures. He also dicusses the difficult dilemma of balancing test sensitivity (essentially the numbers of false negatives) vs test specificity (false positives similarly).The third chapter was a fascinating one. He analyses the statistics used in the tragic case of Sally Clarke, who was imprisoned after she had two babies suffer cot deaths. It is quick shocking how bad maths was used to ‘prove’ her guilt. He continues in the next section to see how the media also manipulate statistics and about different kinds of bias in presenting statistics – illustrated by some figures used by Trump – on race and crime. Again, a topic that was timely when this book was published last year, and even more so now. An interesting digression in the 5th part of the book was to look at number systems and the different bases used by different civilisations – ironically, our decimal base 10 system is not particularly good – ten having fewer factors than twelve. We’ve ended up with different international systems for time, angles and length etc (plus loads of historic measures still). Errors in time zones too nearly resulted in nuclear war with the mis-timed disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion which led to the Cuban Missiles Crisis. The penultimate chapter looks at algorithms in our lives – from route selection and planning to what ads we see on social media, and those who manipulate them for more malign purposes. And so we arrive back at epidemiology.
Despite being a scientist, mathematics has never been my strong point, however, having watched many Horizon type programmes on the subject over the years including those presented by mathematician Hannah Fry, reading many books like Ben Goldacre’s seminal Bad Science, and listening to Tim Harford’s More or Less radio programme, I was familiar with many of the subjects covered in the text. Yates is an entertaining writer, so I didn’t mind being reminded about all this at all. To illustrate the themes, alongside the more headline examples mentioned above, he uses some personal anecdotes. For instance, he tells us how he and his young son carried out a snail capture/recapture survey in their garden to find out how many snails returned, which was sweet; he also uses his own DNA results to discuss the validity of the medical risk factors generated from it. All the chapter references are included at the end, with a few notes; I would have liked an index, but that is a small quibble.
The Maths of Life and Death is written with clear insight, good humour and necessary seriousness where needed to tell these mathematical stories and to draw some important conclusions, not least of which is the need to always question statistics and get second opinions. I enjoyed it and would recommend it to those interested to find out how maths can be applied to our lives.