For a country that won their most recent war, France in the 1920s and ’30s was in bad shape, not least because they were facing an existential crisis. 1.4 million of their men had been killed in World War I, and according to contemporaneous demographers, 1.4 million babies that should have been born weren’t. Pumping up the birth rate to replace those 2.8 million souls became a matter of national security, and it suddenly became every woman’s patriotic duty to have children. In Hélène Grémillon’s debut novel, that history creates a tragic, even ominous, setting against which the lives of the four principal characters will play out.
The story actually begins in 1975, when Camille Werner opens what she believes to be a condolence letter in the wake of her mother’s death. Written in the first person by a man named Louis, it introduces her to Annie and to their childhood friendship in an unnamed town in rural France. As subsequent letters arrive, the story of their lives, and of Annie’s relationship with the childless mistress of the local chateau, unfolds. When Annie agrees to have a baby for the couple to raise, the story deepens into a web of betrayal and misunderstanding.
Camille, an editor, is at first convinced that the letters are part of a writer’s scheme to catch her attention. With each letter, though, she becomes increasingly aware that there is another motive, until a final revelation shows her that everything she thinks she knows is a lie. But the letter writer also discovers that he doesn’t know the full story, and sends Camille one last missive. In a long and detailed confession, the childless woman reveals an alternate picture, one which recasts the first story into a dark and possibly murderous plot.
The immediate drama culminates in spring 1940 as the German blitzkrieg overwhelms France. In the chaos that follows, communications go astray, people appear and disappear, unimaginable compromises must be made, and the dangers of occupation swamp all other considerations. The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. But those problems don’t go away, even with the passage of time, and in 1975 they come home.
The Confidant is shot through with lies, misdirection, concealment, and misunderstanding. Grémillon details those in nuanced, sensuous, and beautifully evocative language, and creates a historical novel without requiring readers to understand the history. Readers will want to savor this, and to watch for subtle clues about the ripple effect these betrayals have.
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