Grey Souls by Philippe Claudel

Well – you can’t say that I’m predictable with my book choices, can you, as this one is probably as far away from the Beverleys I read before it as you could get… “Grey Souls” was the first Claudel book I heard about (I think from the Beauty is a Sleeping Cat site) and I liked the sound of it. However, in the meantime I’d got hold of his “Brodeck’s Report” which I read and reviewed here.

grey souls

“Brodeck…” was set in the second world war, but this book goes back further with the action taking place in a small village near the front during the first world war. Again we have a narrator who is possibly unreliable – an investigator – who’s recording events after the fact. In 1917, while the war boomed away just over the hills, a 10-year-old girl was found strangled in the local canal. Belle was the daughter of a local innkeeper and suspicion is quickly fastened on a couple of deserters and justice is swift. However, the story doesn’t only concern this crime – we hear also about the people in the village, from the local prosecutor Destinat, the Judge Mierck, the school teacher Lilia to the narrator’s wife Clemence. There is a whole host of characters in the locality, all of whom come to play a part in the story, and all are drawn well.

The book progresses and the narrator tells his tale in much the same way as Brodeck did, slipping backwards and forwards in time and trying to piece together the truth after the fact. There is more to the murder than meets the eye, and the suspected killer (not one of the deserters) is protected by his status – the rich are always immune as so often seems to be the case nowadays. But not all is clear-cut – there is guilt in many souls here and nothing is black and white; one character comments that all souls are grey.

I came out of the end of this book a little stunned, to be honest. The revelations of the last couple of chapters and the general ghastliness of the characters and their brutal behaviour was almost too much. Yes, it’s beautifully written; yes, it’s evocative and engrossing; but it’s so unremittingly gloomy, so suffused with darkness and despair that I actually feel that I can’t ever read another book by Claudel. I’ve read many dark works in my time but this was so bleak – I couldn’t find anything in it to redeem humanity and it seemed that any characters who could be good were dead (and female).

Perhaps this is a slight over-reaction – as I’ve said, I’ve read bleak books in my time, but I think it’s the fact that there was no chance of any redemption anywhere that finished me off. I’m sorry I can find anything more positive to say about this book. I think I’ll go back to the gloomy Russians for a while – at least they usually have some jokes….

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