Author: Sylvie Granotier
Translator: Anne Trager
Publisher: Le French Book
The Paris Lawyer by Sylvie Granotier is a book to be savoured, for its plot, its character development, and above all, for the richness of its language.
Catherine Monsigny is a young lawyer, who is beginning to make a name for herself. Despite being self-assured, she still suffers from issues of abandonment from the loss of her mother, Violet, who was murdered while out on a walk, with little Catherine in a stroller.
Her heartbroken father, Dr Claude Monsigny, moves away from the neighbourhood and makes every attempt to raise Catherine up to have a normal life. So seriously does he undertake the task that he issues a blanket ban on any mention of her mother’s name, and discourages any conversations on the subject of her mother. Catherine grows up without any memories of her mother, except the fragmented memory of her last day.
Cedric Devers is a client accused of beating a woman he picked up in a bar. Catherine fights his case successfully, and slowly gets into a relationship with the much-older Cedric. Unknown to her, Cedric was also once her mother’s lover.
The defence of a woman, Maryam N’Bisse from Gabon, who has been charged with the murder of her husband, Gaston, a farmer, leads Catherine back to Creuse, the site of the greatest tragedy of her life.
Her attempts to probe into the murder of Gaston and be assured of the innocence of Maryam lead her, unknowingly and inexorably, to the resolution of the mystery of her mother’s death.
The writing is strong and nonprosaic. Sylvie’s writing is in the genre of literary fiction, forcing you to think and ruminate over her choice of words and phrases. The style is completely different from what one might expect of a legal thriller.
The novel is entirely in the present tense, no matter whether the situation is set in the past or the present. That kind of writing is very difficult to manoeuvre, and can very easily go wrong. Sylvie, however, manages to navigate through the present tense with consummate ease.
Using her writing to critique male attitudes (“Male crudeness can become a woman’s weapon.”) as much as to make a comment on society (She describes the IKEA syndrome as being one “where each step made in economic advancement rejects the preceding one.”), Sylvie reveals her penchant for sarcasm and her ironical voice, which she uses to telling effect.
These gems are scattered throughout the novel. In one place, she says, “Experience proves that once disorder reaches a certain level it gets no worse.” Elsewhere, “The mind of a great man contains all the information it needs.”
This is the second time I have read the work of a French woman novelist, the first being The Seventh Woman by Frederique Molay. It is good to see the diligence with which both writers have built their women characters.
In The Paris Lawyer, the lead character, Catherine, is the strongest character in the novel. But she is no classic paragon of virtues. She is untidy and prone to disorder in her personal spaces, and she has a hopeless crush on her old boss, besides suffering abandonment issues on account of her mother’s death and her father’s unwillingness to confront the past. A single woman, she fears for her own safety yet is sexually active. A woman who borrows the toothbrush of a man with whom she has just had a one-night fling.
The other leading character is Maryam N’Bisse, a black woman from Gabon who is accused of killing her husband, a farmer, by poisoning him. Till the end, one is not quite sure about whether she is a victim of her circumstances, or a powerful person, who is playing the others.
The opening scene begins with a flashback from a child’s point of view, then leads us on through the fragmented of that child, now grown up, yet still a child, unable to break away from that one definitive memory. A child-adult who seeks to understand the events of that tragic day.
At first it seems as if there is no one single case to hold the plot together. And then one becomes aware that Catherine herself is the plot. The murder mystery of Gaston runs parallel to the unsolved murder of her own mother, which she must solve.
Like an onion, Sylvie peels the story apart, bit by bit, to reveal greater complexities. Catherine is a lawyer who tries to get facts while all the time she doesn’t know the right thing about herself, except the vague shadows that pass off as the single memory she has. Her vulnerabilities and insecurities stem from her mother’s death, and her father’s refusal to discuss the past or even keep her mother’s memory alive.
As readers, we are torn between feeling sympathetic towards Catherine, bereft of a mother’s love, and towards her father, who yearns for her affection even as she holds his withholding of the truth against him.
As the story progresses, the stage is set, and the supportive father watches helpless as his daughter is hurtled by destiny to an unbelievable denouement, even as she must choose between two men who are incapable of doing well by the women they love.
Sylvie’s writing envelopes you in a warm haze that makes you feel that you are listening to a soothing story, rather than reading it. The flashbacks are not set off and Catherine gets in and out of them seamlessly.
The description of the sex scenes between Catherine and Cedric are a novelty. Most novelists writing sex scenes get too caught up in describing the physical aspect of it. In Sylvie’s masterful writing, we get an understanding of the states of mind of Catherine and Cedric during the act, and of the psychological motivations that drive them on.
A mask of truth and fiction paints the whole. The lies that Catherine’s father tells her to shield her from the truth, which we, the readers, may or may not be privy to. The lies that Maryam tells Catherine to dissuade her from taking up her case. The lies that Catherine tells herself at various points to justify her actions to herself. The lies that Catherine tells in court to defend clients who are guilty. Eventually, it is about people soothing themselves with made-up stories, hoping to fool others and themselves too.
There is memory that remains repressed, and memory that comes gushing out. Histories that are repeated. Characters that play the same roles in not too different circumstances.
Creuse, the mysterious setting, comes alive twice over, once in Catherine’s memory and then in actuality. It is a place where people hold their secrets close to their chests, yet think nothing of leaving their cars and homes unlocked.
Much as we try not to, we find ourselves taking sides, trying to piece together clues that we have received through Catherine’s eyes.
I commend Anne Trager for her translation. I wonder how beautiful this must have been in the original, if Anne could make it come alive in a translated version.
This is one book I’d like to read again.
(I got a copy of this book through Netgalley. I read it on Kindle.)