Too Close to the Edge by Pascal Garnier is a tale of retirement and calm domesticity, with a hint of menace about to explode (Available in ebook format today, and in paperback on June 14, 2016).
I’ve written about Pascal Garnier here before, so I am going to skip right past any kind of overview of the Frenchman’s writings. If you care to read my general thoughts on his work and a breakdown of a handful of his novels, see this previous post:
Instead, I’ll get right to the point in commenting on this latest in Gallic Books’ series of new English translations of Garnier’s novels. Published in its original French in 2010—the same year Garnier died at age 60—Too Close to the Edge is in keeping with the author’s m.o. of being set in a provincial area of France. Also like much of Garnier’s work, the story involves people who are having life-changing/personality-disintegrating experiences in the remote locale.
This is a novel that to tell much at all about its plot would be to commit spoilers for readers new to it, so I will keep the story rundown to a minimum. There are several key characters, but the most central one is a 64-year-old widow named Éliette. Élitte’s husband, with whom she shared her life with for 40 years, died from cancer, roughly a year before the events of the story take place.
She has gone ahead with the plans they made to move from their home in the Paris suburbs, and relocate to what had been a kind of hobby/vacation residence for them on a former silk farm out in the country. At the outset of the tale, Éliette appears to be just reaching the point where she can overcome her grief and enjoy the quietly idyllic lifestyle that is available to her in the sleepy town. Her children call her at times—and on occasion, visit with their own children—and she does some socializing with locals she’s come to know over the years; but otherwise, the widow is free to take the days as they come and enjoy some peaceful solitude.
Or so she thought.
All at once, certain things happen together that shake up her existence: the son of her closest friends in the small town dies in a car wreck and a strange man and his enigmatic daughter (or is she actually his daughter?) enter her life. And, to say that those two phenomena might be related in ways not immediately apparent to Éliette is not to reveal anything readers won’t learn for themselves through the first few chapters of the novel. Ok, I’ll leave the storyline there.
As is true of Garnier’s other novels, Too Close to the Edge has a page-turner aspect to it, with its intriguing, suspense-inducing narrative and its multiple plot twists. But—for me, anyway—the primary value of the book is not in the details of its story, but in the beauty of the writing. All of Garnier’s stories contain unexpected, offhanded but penetrating strings of sentences and passages that make my brain feel fuzzy in a nice way. In the case of Too Close to the Edge, I’m talking about moments like these:
- “Of course it was madness, but that was exactly what she was missing: a touch of madness to stop herself from sinking into reason.”
- “She sat down and poured herself a tea with such delicacy that she chipped the cup.”
- “Some people have dogs for companions; he’s got his tiredness.”
- “They didn’t say a word to one another, looking straight ahead to the future that already belonged to the past.”
There is also a strong atmospheric tone to much of Too Close to the Edge. Some of this ambience is sensuous, and some of it is sinister. That duality is an essential quality of Garnier’s writing. In the midst of passages that involve characters acting in unbridled and violent ways, there is this lush segment:
Éliette had not taken in a word of the news, despite the fact the radio was droning in her ear. They could have told her the world had ended and still she would have carried on sipping her tea, staring into space, lost in thought. A fly was keeping her company, buzzing from one jar of jam to another, totally absorbed in its essential function: eating and washing its sticky feet in the tiny pool of tea beside the teapot. Éliette felt in perfect harmony with the fly. The minimalism of its existence suited her down to the ground. To aspire to more than eating jam and washing one’s feet in tea seemed unnecessary. It had pretty eyes as well, this fly, and wings for which Éliette would have gladly swapped her feet.
Another striking quality of Too Close to the Edge that makes it akin to Garnier’s other stories, is the way its disturbing facets sneak up on the reader. Similar to how this was often pulled off by Georges Simenon, with whom Garnier often draws comparisons, the tale begins on a light note, eases its follower into a comfortable sort of daze, and then, suddenly, somehow, events reach a point where the happenings between the characters have become ludicrous, yet frightening.
Quality-wise, I place Too Close to the Edge around the middle of the pack, within the 10 or so Garnier novels I’ve now read. But if that sounds like slight praise, understand that, for me, middle-of-the-pack Pascal Garnier = superb.
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Brian Greene writes short stories, personal essays, and reviews and articles of/on books, music, and film. His work has appeared in 25+ publications since 2008. His pieces on crime fiction have also been published by Noir Originals, Crime Time, Paperback Parade, The Life Sentence, Stark House Press, and Mulholland Books. Brian lives in Durham, North Carolina. His writing blog can be found at: http://briangreenewriter.blogspot.com/