"Now I write as if I had died since then. And, deep down, that is true. That's the real, true truth. For a long time now, I feel dead. I pretend that I still live a bit. I am on borrowed time. That's all." The events that, twenty years later, continue to disturb the nameless narrator of LES AMES GRISES take place in a small town in northern France during World War I, in a region so close to the frontline, that the sounds of war provide a constant rumbling background. In this hauntingly affecting, beautifully written novel Philippe Claudel convincingly evokes the impact on the town of V. of the steadily growing viciousness of war.
Central to the story, however, is the murder of a beautiful ten-year-old girl, Belle de jour, that disrupts the still prevailing attitude of complacency among the representatives of the town's establishment. The "Affaire "- Case, as it is introduced early on, raises questions that dig much deeper into the society's fabric than a simple police procedural would be able to do. In his recounting of the events surrounding Belle's death, the protagonist appears to hold his own investigation by introducing, one by one, many of the ghosts, whose long shadows still haunt him into the present. What may have been his role at the time? Through a "parade" of richly drawn characters, who had been either directly, indirectly or possibly involved with the young girl's life or the Case, Claudel weaves a captivating, subtly structured web of evidence, rumours, suspicions, interrogations and deliberate disregard of clues. From the judge, the prosecutor, the father of the victim, to police officers and military, to other important persons in the town and even in the protagonist's own life, all the brilliantly brought to life as individuals with their strengths and weaknesses.
The narrator's account is seemingly written in separate memory blocks (chapters), thus justifying the non-linear structure of his report. The reader's attention is constantly required to pick up clues and connections that will reveal much more than the reader would expect at any one time. The conclusion is dramatic and comes with more than one unexpected punch. An extraordinary and powerful novel that will linger on in the reader for a long time. [Friederike Knabe]