329 pages • Serpent’s Tail • 7 March, 2013 [PB]
“I imagine the spells I would need to transform myself into her. In my mind’s eye I see myself in a dress that shimmers like fish-scales, my face heart-shaped, all my gestures graceful, surrounded by people who love me.”
This intriguing Paris-set mystery begins in 1967 as news researcher, Juliette Blanc, follows up on the rediscovery of a silent movie shot in 1913, which was assumed lost in a fire at the Pathé film processing factory before it could be released. However, when the master copy turns up in a domestic basement in Vincennes it is found to have a missing scene which, it seems, no-one can explain.
Meeting Adèle Roux, the now-elderly lead actress of the film who is still living in Paris, Juliette is led through a complex maze until, by dogged detective work, she eventually uncovers the shocking truth.
This debut novel by Beatrice Hitchman is a dazzling tour-de-force in which the writing – by turns sensitive and coarse, gentle and brutal, beguiling and horrifying – leaves the reader alternately seduced and repelled. Despite the ominous tone set by the sinister childhood sequences of Adèle and her younger sister, Camille, in France and of André Durand, the lead male character (one can hardly describe him as the hero – though he is undoubtedly dashing) in Louisiana, the reader is lulled into a false sense of security as they embark on their adult lives in Paris.
The curiously enervating scenes in the bayous of Grosse Tete, which introduce us to the orphaned André growing up the adopted son of a plantation owner and his wife, are very evocative and have that drowsy sense of Deep South lethargy, melancholia and neurosis so familiar from the works of Tennesee Williams.
The strong theme of callous betrayal emerges on André’s sixteenth birthday but it only becomes apparent as the leitmotif of the whole book as one reads on. By then it is too late, and the reader has been seduced by the author’s siren voice, only to end up shipwrecked on the emotional rocks.
It took me a few pages to adjust to Hitchman’s idiosyncratic style but by then I was hooked and found the book utterly compelling, with an ending (which reviewers have been asked not to reveal – as if we would be so mean-spirited!) that comes as a genuine surprise.
Hitchman’s style is delicately allusive, with some tenderly drawn sex scenes, and all the more powerful for employing gentle hints and subtle insinuations the better to emphasise the submerged horrors when they suddenly surface to shock us.
Petite Mort (or Little Death, which is a metaphor for orgasm, but can also imply mortification) is a work at once tender and tough, and this perhaps epitomises the Anglo-Saxon image of Parisians. Having lived in the French capital for a year, Hitchman ought to know whether or not the stereotype any longer holds true of modern-day Paris, but she paints an utterly believable picture of Belle Époque Parisian society on the eve of the First World War, with all the brittle snobbery, insincerity, hypocrisy and casual cruelty of la belle-monde.
Adèle is plucked from the Pathé costume department by André who, though independently wealthy, devises special effects for films, and taken to live with him and his wife, Luce, as her personal assistant. The aristocratic (and Sapphic) Luce has become a major film star but her marriage to André, which started so passionately, has descended into a tragic and troubled one and Adèle finds herself not only as André’s mistress but as Luce’s paramour too. This secretive ménage à trois, conducted in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the Durand’s grand but isolated home in the Bois de Boulogne on the outskirts of Paris, becomes stifling and, ultimately, destructive.
There is redemption and humanity at the end of the novel which, coming in 1967, perhaps presages Les Evenements, the student riots of the following year, when all the old, complacent certainties and conventions of bourgeois French society were finally swept aside.