In giving Philippe Claudel a second chance (after leaving "By a Slow River" not wholly impressed), I hoped Claudel would learn from the failures of that previous book and find a tighter storyline and a clearer purpose. While Claudel maintained his beautifully written style and often a sense of distance from the story itself, "Brodeck" ends up as the best of both worlds, a beautifully interesting story that does more than just amble along.
Be warned: "Brodeck" is not a fast paced book. It has no intention of racing through pages at a breath-taking speed. Instead, narrator Brodeck calmly tries to arrange his thoughts on paper, essentially leading to three stories. In one, Brodeck tells about life before the unnamed war (easily the second world war), in another, he tells of his war experiences (clearly the camps) and in the third he tells of the "Anderer", the "other", a man who suddenly and strangely appeared in Brodeck's town after the war. These three stories develop side-by-side in a rather non-linear fashion: hints in regards to each are dropped along the way but they're not meant to surprise, necessarily. The story simply grows and becomes clearer as Brodeck tells his tale.
This is not much of a Holocaust tale, even as the remarkable unnamed parallels become clear. The story focuses less on the horror of the war and more on consequences. It shrinks a giant story and presents one man, one town, one situation. The story does not ever feel tired or old; rather, its anonymity gives it new light. While aspects of the setting seem set in stone, each reader leaves the book with their own impressions regarding certain aspects, with their own interpretations and their own crystal clear image of the story.
It helps that "Brodeck" is beautifully written. Claudel sticks to the flowing elegance of "By a Slow River" but gives it a slight nudge, leading to a story that actually moves along. Each chapter adds and leads into the next, even as the stories shift and change. It's difficult to set this book aside for long without wanting to understand more about these perfectly drawn characters. Brodeck may be the main character, but he is far from the only one: Claudel manages to create an entire diverse town, full to the brim with whole characters. Whether it's a strange eccentric man, the town priest, the mayor or a whole range of human characters, each man woman and child feels real and speaks truly. Even as Claudel (through Brodeck) prefers to highlight the bad, sparks of humanity and good still emerge on occasion, despite the dark undertones to the story.
"Brodeck" is an excellent book that will stick with readers for a long time to come. It is a dark story, representing (for the most part) the dim parts of human nature, traveling deep into gray/black murky waters. It is not meant to be a quick cheerful tale, but "Brodeck" is powerful, fascinating and wonderfully written. It'll be hard to leave "Brodeck" without feeling slightly changed or at least feeling more aware of certain things. Whether the characters draw you in, the plot appeals to you, or Claudel's clear, elegant prose attracts you, "Brodeck" is worth the time.