From Nancy Huston, a Canadian writer who's lived in France for a couple of decades, comes a modest proposal in the form of a novel: Maybe millennial fiction shouldn't look forward. Maybe it should look back to the shames and sadnesses of the 20th century. The Mark of the Angel
, Huston's U.S. debut and a bestseller in France, tells the story of Saffie, a young German girl who takes a job as a housekeeper in 1957 Paris. Her employer, a brilliant young flautist named Raphael, falls hard for her, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that he finds her "impassive" and "impenetrable." Hard-eyed Saffie seems to sleepwalk through life, and as if in a dream, she and Raphael marry and have a son, Emil. When Raphael sends her off to have his flute repaired one day, he little suspects what he's setting in motion. In András, the instrument maker, Saffie finds a damaged twin. Both are victims of the horrible experiment of Hitler's war: German Saffie has endured not only rape and torture but also the knowledge of her own family's Nazi sympathies. Hungarian Jew András has lost his family and his country. The two embody the horrors that Europeans visited on each other in the middle of the 20th century. And they covertly embark on a five-year affair, during which their love comes to be sorely tested by the Algerian war for independence from France.
Huston's prose is cool, opaque, ironic, and intensely romantic. Her style and her story both owe a great debt to Milan Kundera's Unbearable Lightness of Being, a debt she seems to acknowledge explicitly: "Saffie is crushed, stifled, petrified by the... how to put it... the unbearable tenuousness of the moment... Dizzy with inexistence, she clutches at András's arm--and he, misunderstanding, sets Emil down in a chair on the café terrace--turns to his lover--takes her in his arms and begins to waltz with her... Ah! Thanks to András, the hideous unreality of the world has been held at bay once again, movement has turned back into true movement, instead of immobility in disguise." Kundera's preoccupation with Nietzsche's concept of the eternal return is clearly at work here too: The past, Huston warns us loud and clear, is never past. --Claire Dederer
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From Publishers Weekly
Drenched in irony, and very French in sensibility, Huston's U.S. debut must overcome an unfortunate beginning before it gallops away with the reader's mesmerized attentionAbut once underway, it fascinates with its blend of cynicism and romance, and its dramatization of the roles of accident and fate, and of evil and injustice, in human history. Initially, one must accept a far-fetched plot: that when world-famous flutist Raphael Lepage sees Saffie, the young German woman who answers an ad for a maid to clean his luxurious Paris apartment, he immediately succumbs to overwhelming love and soon afterward marries herAdespite the fact that she is as emotionless as a zombie, does not even remotely return his affections and is anathema to his beloved mother, who has never forgiven the Nazi occupation 20 years before. Even the birth of a son does not thaw Saffie's cold indifference, which persists until she meets Andr s, a Hungarian-Jewish refugee who repairs musical instruments; the mutual recognition of irresistible passion releases all her emotions. During their liaisons in his little shop in the Marais, Andr s tells Saffie about the destruction of his family in Budapest, and she reveals her own traumatic memories of WWIIAthe Allied bombings, her father's complicity with the campaign of annihilation, her mother's brutal rape by conquering Russian soldiers. Even as their affair unfolds, however, the horrifying events of the 1940s are being repeated in Algeria and France, as FLN terrorists strike back at French atrocities. In the end, innocence must die, as, Huston reminds us, it always has and always will. While Huston often overwrites and sometimes indulges in arch asides, once she establishes her story's central ironies, the narrative achieves a relentless velocity. A scene in which both Saffie and Andr s recall separate incidents in which poorly buried bodies erupt through the earth, drenching the soil with blood, is a shattering reminder of the endless cycle of human violence. Canadian-born Huston has lived in France for more than three decades, where her books (seven novels plus nonfiction works) are bestsellers. BOMC and QPB selections; paperback rights to Vintage. (Oct.) FYI: The Mark of an Angel won the French Prix des Lectrices d'ELLE and the Prix des Librairies in Canada, and is shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt in France. Huston's other awards include the Prix Contrepoint, the Prix Goncourt Lyceen and the Canadian Governor General's Award in French.
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