A Girl’s Story by Annie Ernaux
Translated by Alison L. Strayer

Annie Ernaux is an award-winning French author whose works have been making their way into the Anglophone world over recent years, most notably in the UK via the wonderful Fitzcarraldo Editions. Originally pitching her literary talents towards fiction, she switched to autobiographical works and these are the ones which most British readers would recognise – books like “I Remain in Darkness” and “The Years” have garnered much praise from readers and critics alike. Her most recent release via Fitzcarraldo is “A Girl’s Story” and, as an Ernaux virgin, I was very happy to be offered a copy by the publisher to cover for #WITmonth.

From what I’ve read about Ernaux’s books, they don’t mince their words; and “A Girl’s Story” is no exception. It tells the story of a pivotal event in young Annie’s life when, at the age of 18, she spent a summer as an instructor at a camp for younger children. A naive only child, Annie is instantly taken advantage of by H., the head instructor; though remaining technically a virgin, she is used sexually by him, and as the summer goes on, by plenty of others in the camp. Overwhelmed by these experiences, she is unable to recognise how she has been abused or see herself as a victim; she thinks instead she’s now experiencing freedom from the repressive control of her parents, and cannot understand why she should be labelled whore. Her humiliation at the mockery and contempt of the rest of the instructors is almost as strong as her pain at being used and abandoned by H.

The effects of the summer of 1958 are devastating, and Annie D. (Duschesne, as she was then) loses contact with H. at the end of the summer, and is rejected by the camp when she applies to be an instructor the following year. Instead, she spends time as an au pair in London, where her behaviour is still off-kiltre. She’s a self-obsessed young person, as so many are, with little knowledge of what’s happening in real life and a kind of blindness when it comes to major world events; she’s locked inside her head, fixated on her own emotions.

The cover of the US edition from Seven Stories Press

In itself, “A Girl’s Story” is an important book; in many ways, it could every woman’s story, as most of us have at some point faced abuse from men, whether verbal, physical, emotional or simply derision. As Ernaux comments at one point in the story (when both male and female instructors are mocking a letter of Annie’s which has been found and displayed on a noticeboard):

When I go back over the corridor scene, little by little, the girl in the middle becomes depersonalized, is no longer me or even Annie D. What happened in the corridor at the camp takes us back to time immemorial, all over the planet. Everywhere on earth, with every day that dawns, a woman stands surrounded by men ready to throw stones at her.

And how many naive young women have become obsessed by an older man who seems to be some kind of ideal, yet has little interest in them and casts them off when they’ve got what they want? But there’s something deeper at work in Ernaux’s writing as she tackles her past. Her narrative form is unusual; she distances herself from her past self, telling Annie D.’s story in the third person as if they were two separate people (which I suppose, in some ways, they are). It seems as if she’s conflicted, unable or unwilling to get into the mindset of the girl of summer 1958, yet trying to do just that. As she wrestles with herself, it’s as if she’s spent the intervening years trying to completely bury her memories and that part of her past and move on. However, the experience has marked her and stayed with her and she’s still unable to let go of it.

I wonder what it means for a woman to pore over scenes that happened over fifty years earlier, to which her memory can add nothing new at all. What is the belief that drives her, if not that memory is a form of knowledge?

Knowledge is control, I suppose; and by writing about her past and exploring the way memory works, Ernaux is trying to take back control over herself and the way she was perceived, control which she certainly didn’t have at the time. In retrospect, a young girl from a repressed household with a controlling mother, no wordly knowledge and no experience of men was a lamb to the slaughter and never should have been sent to the summer camp. But she was, and she had these vile experiences which had tainted her life, and this is, I suppose, Ernaux’s reckoning with them.

How are we present in the existences of others, their memories, the ways of being, even their acts? There is a staggering imbalance between the influence those two nights with that man have had upon my life, and the nothingness of my presence in his.

The things which happen to us when we’re young and impressionable *do* stay with us; and traumatic events like those which were inflicted on Annie D. couldn’t help but have a lasting effect. Fascinatingly, Ernaux traces the start of her writing life back to these events, as if they made her the woman she is – which seems to be a powerful, honest and confessional writer. She also captures the attitudes of the times quite brilliantly; the double standards applied to women, the expectations of their behaviour, and the casual misogyny which existed. “A Girl’s Story” is a vivid, often harrowing and yet inspiring book, as Annie D. suvived the events of the summer of 1958 and moved on to become the author which Annie Ernaux is. “A Girl’s Story” is a multi-layered read, looking not only at the events of the summer of 1958 and how they affected her; it also looks at issues around memory, trauma, blinkered perceptions and how we can totally submit our willpower to another human. It’s a compelling and unforgettable book, a chronicle of its era in many ways, and Ernaux is obviously an author I will need to explore further…

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher via Clare Bogen, for which many thanks!