The Case of Lisandra P. by Hélène Grémillon, translated by Alison Anderson – #WITMonth 2016

Title:  The Case of Lisandra P.

Author:  Hélène Grémillon

Translator:  Alison Anderson

Publisher:  Penguin Books, New York (2016)

ISBN:  978 0 14 312658 4


When writing #WITMonth posts, my first instinct is to spotlight only amazing books. And while those books definitely exist, it started to seem unfair to hold a writer to a ridiculously high standard because of her gender. It is perfectly acceptable for women, like men, to write mediocre but ultimately entertaining novels. Novels you take to the beach or read beside the pool not caring if the pages get full of sand or foxed from the water. Novels that are a little far-fetched and require a willingness to buy into coincidence after unlikely coincidence; but  which have you locked to the page – frantic to find out what happens next.

The Case of Lisandra P. is that kind of book.

In 2003 the French military’s role in training Argentine forces thirty plus years prior, in both urban warfare and torture techniques, was revealed. That training was subsequently used by the Argentine government against its own people in what came to be known as the Dirty War. Anywhere between 7,000-30,000 men, women and children disappeared between 1974 and 1983 – no one knows the actual numbers – and devastated families had no choice but to accept never knowing what had happened to a generation of their loved ones.  French writer Hélène Grémillon sets her story in Buenos Aires, 1987. It is against this backdrop of residual paranoia and loss which The Case of Lisandra P. plays out.

When a beautiful young woman is found dead on the sidewalk by a pair of young lovers, six stories below the window of her own apartment, the police are more than happy to implicate the husband. But Dr. Vittorio Puig,  psychoanalyst, maintains he is innocent.  From prison he reaches out to one of his patients and asks for her help in uncovering the truth. Eva Maria, an alcoholic and emotionally fragile woman (who may be a little in love with Puig), hesitantly agrees.

The alcoholic detective, recovering from a tragic past may be as cliché as it gets – but Eva Maria is more than that. She is a mother still reeling from the disappearance of her daughter.  One day Stella left the house and, like so many others during the Dirty War, never came back.  Her body was never found. In the aftermath, Eva Maria’s marriage falls apart and she drinks until she blacks out.  Her remaining son’s attempts to reach out to her, to care for her, are continually rejected. He desperately wants some sign of his mother’s affection, but Eva Maria is buried alive in a very real portrayal of a parent’s inconsolable grief.

…The funeral of a dead woman is one thing, but of a murdered woman, that’s something else entirely. The sorrow of not knowing how she died, this woman they are burying: it impedes mourning, and nothing should ever impede mourning, or there can be no healing. Can anyone here imagine Vittorio pushing his wife out the window? Is anyone here absolutely convinced he did? Eva Maria got there first, and she will be the first to leave. The policeman are waiting. Talking. Laughing. Eva Maria hides behind a tree. She watches as people leave the church. You don’t take photos at funerals. Her camera sounds like the song of a sick bird. She doesn’t want to miss anyone. Eva Maria is beginning to have a taste for suspicion, the stifling sensation that anyone could have killed Stella. She meant to say Lisandra. She’s confusing them. Mixing things up. In her mind now the two dead women are overlapping. The one who makes her suffer so much that she cannot bear to think of her, and the one who did not suffer, who occupies her thoughts for hours on end.

As she becomes more involved the case the boundaries between  Lisandra P.’s murder and Eva Maria’s obsession with her daughter’s disappearance begin to blur. As she listens to tapes of his sessions, at Vittorio’s request, she learns terrible secrets regarding her fellow patients. Things quickly spiral into an ending both shocking and tragic.

Structurally, The Case of Lisandra P. is a hodge-podge that incorporates first person stream of conscious and all three third person narrative perspectives (objective, limited and omniscient) as it jumps from character to character. Even the victim gets her turn to speak. Four pages of sheet music are reproduced between chapters, we read directly from the transcripts of Puig’s therapy sessions, there is the illustration of a sign and of a business card, a list of words Lisandra found in a book takes up three pages. There’s probably more that I’ve forgotten. Grémillon has metaphorically dumped a box onto a table and assembled a novel out of the contents. A hot mess is one way to describe it.  But the disorganization also creates the impression that the reader is actively participating in Eva Maria’s investigation.

Hélène Grémillon’s first novel, The Confidant was nominated for the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman and won Monaco’s Prince Pierre Literary Prize.  I have to think that it was a very different book than this one.  The Case of Lisandra P. is a perfect poolside thriller. Easily read and just as easily forgotten.


3 thoughts on “The Case of Lisandra P. by Hélène Grémillon, translated by Alison Anderson – #WITMonth 2016

  1. I’m supposing that readers discover enough of the story of the psychoanalyst to understand why he thinks an alcoholic would be the best person to dos over the truth. Feels a bizarre decision,,, I think I’ll skip this one…


    1. Hi BookerTalk –

      Actually, it becomes clear by the end of the book exactly why he chose Eva Maria. But on the whole the book isn’t too concerned about the details making complete sense… something I find to be true for most thrillers.


  2. *chuckle, ducking for cover* I’m going to take issue with you over your first paragraph…
    I’m speaking only from an Australian perspective, so it may not apply elsewhere… but here, female authors writing “mediocre but ultimately entertaining novels” (a.k.a. fun but forgettable) are doing just fine. They have great sales in all kinds of genre fiction (everything from crime to rom-coms) and their books have plentiful consumer reviews at places like Amazon and Goodreads. Many of them are successfully making a living from sales, which is not easy to do in a small market like Australia. Recognition for writers like that is not really what the problem is (though from time to time writers of both genders who write genre fiction complain about not winning “elitist” literary prizes, which just shows that they don’t know the difference between literature and what they write). I don’t think they need much attention during #WIT month (or any other time).
    It seems to me that what women have a legitimate gripe about, is that female authors of what we tend to call literary fiction don’t get enough recognition in serious review publication or in prizes. I do think that they focus on statistics from old media because it suits their agenda, and because it’s easy to track. Women get much better traction in online media, and for huge numbers of people now, online book reviews have supplanted old media reviews in newspapers and magazines which are increasingly less relevant because people just don’t read or buy them. I have yet to see any analysis of “the gender problem” that takes account of reviews in serious litblogs, and frankly I think that weakens their case.
    Still, there is a case to be made for spreading awareness of female authors of ‘amazing’ books in translation because we who read reviews widely around the blogosphere often don’t know about those authors. Now that I’m tracking the gender of my books in translation I can see that there’s an imbalance on my blog and while I’m not ever going to start reading to anybody’s agenda it’s something that I think I can redress long term simply by adding to my wishlist reviews of women in translation when I come across them. Because for me, it’s what I read online that influences what I buy.
    But only if they’re writing the kind of books I like, and they have to be more than fun but forgettable!


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