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This is a doorstopper of a novel about France, the women’s liberation movement, family, class, animal rights, and more. But mainly it is about sisters. They are connected not only biologically, but they share a deep reliance on one another. It begins in the late 1960s – the sisters ranging in age from very young to teens – and traces them on through their trek into adulthood.
We learn of their dependence on each other in the first pages of the book. When Helene returns from visiting relatives – a bourgeois family in Paris that longed for a daughter and invited her for holidays – she looks forward to finding “her place again among her siblings, between Sabine the eldest and Mariette the youngest: her place in the middle, which supported her, as if she were lying between her two sisters in a narrow bed, protected by their closeness.” And when a friend witnesses an argument: “The sisters felt miserable. They had given Rose the wrong idea; she wouldn’t understand. They weren’t fighting, they were calling out to each other. It took only a second for them to start missing one another, and that second was like a tiny drop of water that contained everything.”
Sabine, Helene and Mariette have a generally happy childhood in rural France, raised by doting working class parents. Sabine longs to escape her small-town life and become an actress in Paris; Helene is tender-hearted, plagued with moral questions about animal rights; Mariette is asthmatic and delicate, in every sense the coddled baby of the family. Their mother Agnes struggles with a “sort of guilty jealousy” when Sabine leaves the family home to pursue her dreams. Agnes “would never know what she might have been good at, what her place in a world without motherhood might have been.” Their father Bruno is conservative, uxorious, adores his daughters, and is often afraid of sharing his emotions. These are the central characters in a wide-ranging cast set over a tumultuous time in French history, of which Bruno is the only one to come across as relatively flat. Apart from his meager earnings, we learn little about him. While the others grow and evolve, Bruno remains the confused bystander.
Olmi’s experience as a playwright is evident in the text, with its many voices and well-developed interiority of the main characters. Others spin in and out of the story, the friends and acquaintances of a family in transition. Bruno and Agnes must adjust to life with only one young daughter in the house, while the sisters learn to separate from each other and develop romantic relationships.
Although the novel has no central, driving plot, the spare prose and complexity of the characters engages us from one historical milestone to the next. As these characters grow and change, Olmi shows us how France is changing, too. Translated from the French by Alison Anderson and published by Europa Editions this year, the novel traces landmark moments in French history, from roughly the 1971 Manifesto of the 343 (in which Simone de Beauvoir and others admitted to having illegal abortions and called for legalization) to the 1981 election of President François Mitterrand. We see these events unfurl in big moments – rallies attended by the girls or news updates the family watches together. But also in smaller moments that have a tremendous impact on their lives: when Agnes slips Sabine the birth control pill without Bruno’s knowledge, revealing that she herself is taking it, against Bruno’s and her own religious beliefs, at the same time condoning Sabine’s sexual relationship with her boyfriend.
The sisters come of age in a different culture to their parents, with abortion rights playing a major part in the country’s transition. Bruno is adamantly against it, and he feels betrayed when he learns that Agnes has maintained a close friendship with an alleged abortion provider: “He was fed up with all this contraception and abortion business the women were obsessed with. Why didn’t they want to defer to nature anymore? Having children wasn’t a curse.” Sabine in particular dwells on a Charlie Hebdo story mocking the 343: “Who Got Them Pregnant, the 343 Sluts Who Signed the Abortion Manifesto? She didn’t understand the insult. Sluts. It added violence to abortion, a burning topic that put her ill at ease; she didn’t dare talk about it.” Here Olmi manages to show us the conflict of a young woman growing up with conservative parents but experiencing a changing world outside her home – all while pinning these critical historical moments within the plot of the novel.
What is remarkable is the timeliness of the book It is set in the throes of the 1970s, but many references apply today. Sabine thinks of “all those who dare and who resist,” including the “Iranian women demonstrating against the compulsory wearing of the veil.” Mariette and her friend discuss what makes parents – is it biology, responsibility, or simply love? Helene makes an emotional plea to fellow students to wake up to the dangers of unregulated agricultural practices.
All of the characters – save Bruno – are complex. The sisters grow up, become self-involved, and their parents simultaneously mourn their loss and move on without them. But eventually, the sisters begin to realize that their mother is more than the person who raised them. She has other desires and has suffered grave losses from which they remain apart. In this way the novel becomes about Agnes herself, and all the sacrifices she has made to give life to her daughters. In the first pages, we learn that “Agnes’s life could be summed up by that verb, to fill. Fill the stove, fill the fridge, fill the tub, fill their stomachs, fill the emptiness.” The whole of the novel insinuates that nothing is filling Agnes, until she decides to take matters into her own hands: “It seemed to [the girls] that their mother could not stop drinking…maybe she had only come now for no other reason than to drink and then leave again…and she was about to keep going, to walk straight ahead without ever looking back, to leave them forever with the memory of her sturdy back, her generous shoulders, and the water that could not quench her thirst.”
Olmi’s unraveling of the mystery of a mother is deft. Agnes becomes the embodiment of the women’s liberation movement for her daughters. They learn to see her as more than simply their mother, but as a person with her own opinions, history, and longing.
By Veronique Olmi
Translated by Alison Anderson
Europa Editions, pp 496
Monica Cardenas is a writer, visiting tutor and PhD researcher at Royal Holloway, University of London, where she also completed an MA in Creative Writing. Originally from Washington, D.C., she earned a BA in English from Wilkes University, Pennsylvania. Her novel-in-progress The Marriage Amendment was longlisted for the Lucy Cavendish College Fiction Prize and runner-up in the Borough Press open submission competition. Her writing appears in Litro and Catatonic Daughters.