Women Writing About Horrible Things – Two French Novellas (a #WITMonth post)

Le Necrophile (The Necrophiliac in English) by Gabrielle Wittkop, translated by Don Bapst and Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi, translated by Adriana Hunter, are unflinching character studies – depicting mankind in its darkest moments and (as is the case of Le Necrophile) at its most depraved.

TITLE:  Le Necrophile
AUTHOR: Gabrielle Wittkop
PUBLISHER: ECW Press, Ontario  (2011)
ISBN:  978 15502 2943 1


TITLE:  Beside the Sea
AUTHOR: Véronique Olmi
TRANSLATOR:  Adriana Hunter
PUBLISHER: Tin House, New York (2010)
ISBN:  978 1 935639 42 8

One criticism I wanted to address during Women In Translation Month was that women authors write exclusively about “women’s issues”. Or, worse, the categorizing of their work as “chick-lit” or “relationship” novels.  As somehow homogenously feminine and, as such, more easily lumped together and dismissed from the company of books written by men.  With that in mind I have deliberately chosen two books that are challenging and complicated – novels not easily identified as or typical of literature associated with women.  Le Necrophile (The Necrophiliac in English) by Gabrielle Wittkop, translated by Don Bapst and Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi, translated by Adriana Hunter, are unflinching character studies – depicting mankind in its darkest moments and (as is the case of Le Necrophile) at its most depraved.

The Necrophiliac is not a metaphor (as I initially believed when I bought it). Instead it is the very literal title of a disturbing and disturbingly beautiful book about –  there’s no way to put this delicately – a man has sex with corpses. Lucien, the protagonist and narrator, is an antiques dealer.  He has no friends; no family. He is a loner;  for reasons that very quickly become apparent. He reads the obituaries the way normal people read the personals. Sometimes he attends the funeral. Then at night, while everyone is sleeping, Lucien drives his Chevrolet to the cemetery to dig up his date. The relationship can last for weeks at a time.

He has no set type.  Men, women, the very young and the very old all have their specific attractions. The Necrophiliac is written in the style of a personal journal and the graphic descriptions of the sexual encounters will make your skin crawl.  There is no easing readers in.  From page one Lucien is revolting, breaking multiple taboos. By having him narrate his own story Wittkop manages to humanize him – but barely so.  Only the beauty of the prose keeps you reading.

I went this morning for a stroll around the Ivy Cemetery, charming under the snow like an ornate centerpiece made of sugar, strangely lost in a plebeian district. Watching a widow decorate the tomb of the deceased with a little Christmas tree, I noticed suddenly how rare they’ve become, those women in full mourning in their floating veils – though often blond – who for the most part – usually, not always – professionals who practised their art behind the family monuments with an absolutely depressing absence of brilliance and sincerity.  Widows’ meat.

The passage above is one of the few in The Necrophiliac that won’t cause you to flinch. And, fortunately, is still indicative of the author’s style – which is lovely and devoid of the cloying prose style inherent to most Gothic novels. In fact, if you can move past the subject matter The Necrophiliac is surprisingly engrossing. The writing is truly gorgeous. Don Bapst translation manages to capture the contemporary Gothic flavor and the voluptuous imagery which, combined, creates a truly unique reading experience.  The size is perfect; ninety-one pages that can easily be consumed in one sitting.

And – fortunately – the book is not without some humor.  As you can imagine Lucien has a difficult time keeping cleaning ladies.

This appears to be the only book by the author, Gabrielle Wittkop, that is currently available to English readers. Before her suicide in 2002, at age 82, the author had written several novels, short stories and poems.  She saw herself as “the heir to de Sade” and is widely read in both France and Germany.  Her popularity in those countries allows me to hope that more of her work will eventually find its way into the hands of English translators.


Véronique Olmi’s novella Beside the Sea, translated by Adriana Hunter, is another book that describes the world through the eyes of a troubled protagonist.  The initial premise seems innocent: the narrator takes her two young sons on an impromptu seaside holiday. But from the first sentence – “We took the bus, the last bus of the evening, so no one would see us.” – it is apparent that all is not right. What unfolds is heartbreaking.  Both boys will be dead by the end of the book.

Beside the Sea explores difficult subject matter of an entirely different nature than The Necrophiliac. Matricide takes the place of perversion – and suddenly perversion seems the more palatable of the two.  This is not an easy book by any definition. Beside the Sea is another (mercifully) short novella  – only 119 pages.  But every one of those pages feels like a punch in the chest.  From the mother’s rough, uneducated voice (the grammar is ever so slightly off); to the anxiety of her two small boys ; to the ineptness of the social workers meant to help them.  There is nothing pretty about the story or the prose.  Nor is there anything comforting.  Olmi writes fiercely – refusing to shy away from all the horrible little details that make her story painfully believable. She has created a main protagonist who invokes readers’ frustration as much as she does their pity. The book’s two small children aren’t angelic – they behave & misbehave as little boys do. And their perfectly drawn imperfection makes you want to protect them from what is coming all the more.

Omni excels at character development, relying on her readers to pick up on all the little clues her oblivious narrator let’s drop.  Social workers, concerned teachers, poverty and absent fathers are all mentioned in passing.  The eldest boy, 11-year old Stan, has taken on the role of adult that she is incapable of filling.  Kevin is still too young to understand what is going on and still retains some innocence.  “Mom! Kevin cried when he saw I was awake, and that’s a wonderful thing! The way a little’un says hello to you in the morning, as if you were the surprise of the day, the piece of good news he’d given up on.”  Both boys love their mother, but Stan has learned not to trust her.  She, in turn, loves them.  That is never in question.  But she is psychologically unable to care for them properly.

We’ll go to a cafe, I said, but neither of them looked convinced by that and I added We’ll order and we’ll be served! They looked at me suspiciously like I was telling a fib, so I got up an then I couldn’t help smiling – never mind my gappy gums, I was too proud of myself, I rummaged through the blue sports bag, took out my tea tin and tipped it out onto the bed, regretting it didn’t make more noise: I spilled out all my money! All of it! Everything I’d put by to have fun someday, all my little savings scrimped from the change at the baker and sometimes at the supermarket.

The kids didn’t touch the money, they looked at it, cautiously, like they were meeting someone new. Can we have ice cream? Kevin asked to make sure, and I was convinced he was no longer missing school. Stupid! Stan said quietly, in a cafe you drink coffee! And, anyway, there’s practically only twenty-centime coins left! Really? I said. Only twenty-centime coins? And I looked a bit closer. The boys sat down next to me on the bed, peering at my treasure like some strange creature. It’s true there weren’t many ten-franc coins, but hey! It was my scrimpings, not an investment, a bit extra, okay! I didn’t want them to see my disappointment, but at the same time I resented them for showing so little enthusiasm. Stan started counting the coins with such a serious expression you’d have though he was picking up something I’d broken, sorting out some stupid accident, that’s what they teach them at school: to be distrustful…

I don’t believe Omni expects readers to sympathize with the mother, yet she manages to humanize her.  That, in itself, is an achievement.  It’s also the key to the success of Beside the Sea.  The characters and situations are hyper-realistically drawn, as if the author recognized the weight of the subject matter – the horrible, chilling, heartbreaking act that drives the plot – and realized it alone would have  to carry the reader through.  Anything else would be disrespectful – a Lifetime movie no one wants to watch.  So Véronique Omni makes the intelligent decision of telling the story without resorting to emotional manipulation or literary devices/embellishments. Without tears.  The only false note is the final sentence, which shuts the door too neatly on a situation that is anything but. Otherwise Beside the Sea is an amazing novella, one that deserves more accolades and attention than it will probably ever receive.  Therein lies the peril of taking on societal taboos in a complicated and meaningful way.*


*versus the exploitative 

GoneReading.com – Building a Global Reading Community

Gimble TravelerI’ve never been one to advertise on my blog.* Well, anything other than books. But when Gone Reading reached out to me I did a little research and liked what I saw. GoneReading.com sells “Brilliant Products for the Reading Lifestyle”.   The site carries a wide variety of reading accessories, as well as decorative & novelty items.  100% of their after tax profit goes to charities like READ Global & Ethiopia Reads – literacy programs that build libraries, community centers and work to put books in the hands of people – young & old – around the world.  What kind of practical difference can increased literacy rates make in developing countries?  Several reports have been released by agencies like Unesco, The National Endowment for the Arts and The National Literacy Trust with findings such as: increased literacy rates can contribute to GDP growth.  In individuals it can be linked to improved quality of life, better job performance and more community participation. Literacy opens doors and creates opportunities.

Which was enough to convince me to peruse the site and pick-out a few items that I thought my readers might like. Bookmark Pad

I’m a gadget girl.  I love stuff that does stuff: bags with compartments; Swiss Army pocket knives; e-readers; I don’t discriminate between high or low tech – good design is good design. And my new Gimble Traveler is good design.  I hate trying to keep a book open while I’m typing up a review. There are leather book weights but they costs a fortune and lay on top of the page, obscuring the text.  The Gimble, though, costs under thirteen dollars and works like a charm.  The sturdy plastic arms obscure only a small portion of the page, it works with paperbacks or hardcovers, and adjusts to fit different sized books.  The Gimble isn’t very pretty, but it does comes in different colors. And, most important, it works.

Another item that I knew I could use was a new booklight.  Most clip on book lights, in my experience, are too big. They’re bulky and heavy and  can  damage the pages. The Really Tiny Book Light is a big hit.  It gives off a bright, direct light.  Attaches to the book without leaving marks.  And TRTBL is greats for traveling – I used it on the late bus back from NYC and can attest that it only lights up the page. Not the person sleeping in the seat next to you.  I’m ordering some for stocking stuffers in December. Tiny Book Light 2

Next: The Oh-So-Handy Bookmark Pad. Who doesn’t need more bookmarks?  25 bookmarks come per pad, printed on a heavy stock paper. The quality is unexpectedly good.  If you like writing notes on stuff (I don’t) they’re also lined with fields where you can fill in the title, author, date started & finished of the book you’re reading.

I left my favorite for last. The Book Rest Lamp by Suck UK.  A gorgeous design.  I bought mine a few years ago and it  sits in my living room: looking sharp and holding my place in style.

So whether your looking for a silly novelty gift; something for yourself (the My Bibliofile book journal has a Reading Tree/flow chart you can use to track your reading); or a gift that’s a little more special (the Library Collection author themed scented candles and fragrance diffusers  scream host/hostess gift) – you’ll find it at GoneReading.com.  And every one of your purchases builds good karma by helping to fund programs like this:


*Just a reminder – this blog is completely non-profit.  No paid advertisements will ever appear on BookSexy Review (the notable exception being the videos WordPress sometimes puts at the end of my posts. Over which I have limited control & for which I receive no money). 

The Readers Podcast

If you aren’t yet listening to The Readers, you really need to get it together.  Simon (from the blog Savidge Reads) and Gavin (from GavReads) are ridiculously entertaining.  It’s one of my favorite podcasts, so you can imagine how excited I was when they announced their Summer Reading Book Club and offered listeners the opportunity to take part in the conversation. The novel we discussed, along with @SarahCubbitt, was the Booker nominated Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (Warning: there will be spoilers).

The podcast includes an interview with the author, and then Simon & Gavin discuss their thoughts prior to the book club portion. Click on the Readers logo at the end of this post or download from iTunes to listen in. I’ll be posting my review (the spoiler free version) later this week.



Castle by J. Robert Lennon (Audiobook)

Castle isn’t for everyone.  I, for one, have mixed feelings about it.  J. Robert Lennon knows how to stretch out suspense.  Castle is perfectly paced psychological thr… well, it’s not exactly a thriller.  It’s more of a mystery/horror/suspense novel – with well-timed reveals and a narrative voice as creepy as they come.  Those are its strengths.  Its weaknesses are harder to define.

I should probably warn you here that Castle contains violence and torture.  Animals and children suffer.   Much of the plot is hard to stomach.

Tangent:  Am I the only one who cringes when an author introduces an animal into a storyline???!  Why does it never, ever end well?  Old Yeller, The Red Pony, The Horse Whisperer, that frightened dog in Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger… and those are just off the top of my head.  Don’t get me started on films (that wolf in Dances with Wolves – being in the title didn’t save him).  It’s a cliché, a cheap emotional trigger and a particular pet peeve of mine. *end rant here*

It’s obvious in the first hour (this is an audiobook) that something isn’t right with Eric Loesch – the narrator and protagonist of Castle.   There’s more going on than he’s revealing, to us or to himself.  There are suspicious gaps in his memory and the coincidences keep piling up.   Eric is not withholding information so much as he is not remembering it.  He’s disassociated from the people around him.  He has no emotional ties and flies off the handle with little or no provocation.  You might say he’s a few cards short of a deck, but’s hard to tell.  He appears so out of touch with events, his perception of the world so askew, that you question everything you’ve read.  It’s an effective use of an unreliable narrator, – keeping readers  off-balance and unsure.

Little by little Lennon teases out his hero’s history.   We learn that Eric has returned to his boyhood home after a long absence; about his relationship to his sister and the history of his family; his connection to the abandoned house which he is methodically restoring; eventually, we’ll watch as he unravels the mystery of the large, black rock at the center of his property.   And, unfortunately, that’s all I can tell you.  The worst thing is to give too much of the plot away.  This book becomes so uncomfortable in parts that the only reason I continued listening was to find out what the hell was going on.

But is that enough?  While I appreciate what the author has accomplished in this novel – the pacing, the suspense, the overall creepiness –  I was ultimately disappointed with the resolution.  I suppose that’s a hazard of the genre.  The greater the build-up, the greater the chance of falling short of the reader’s expectations.  Again, I don’t want to give too much away.   It’s enough to say that Lennon introduces a plot point in the last few chapters, after all the reveals and explanations have happened, that was just too contrived for me.  Inexplicably, he downplays the psychology of the events he chooses to discuss and goes with what is ultimately the easy answer.  The answer which we’d all like to accept, but which I feel does a disservice to those who were involved.

Have I piqued your interest?  No doubt it’s an interesting book.  One that inspires strong emotions.  Lori from TNBBC & I have been listening to the Iambik.com audiobook together and talking about it non-stop.  And there’s definitely a lot to talk about.  Neither of us is a huge fan of the narrator/reader.  I recognized Mark Douglas Nelson from other Iambik recordings.  He has a distinctive voice that requires the right text – and the verdict is out as to whether this was it.  I think Eric is supposed to be in his late 30’s, early 40’s – the narrator is clearly a much older man.  This didn’t bother me so much, but it makes it difficult to pinpoint Eric’s age (something I’m still not certain of).  Knowing his age is not a critical element to understanding the story, but it was a distraction.

Part of me wonders if Castle might have been better read than listened to.  The former would have allowed me to skim through the uncomfortable bits and create my own narrative voice.  It’s something for potential readers (or listeners) to keep in mind before picking up (or downloading) this novel.  The eternal question of which is better: to read or to be read to?  This time I’m going with “to read”.

Publisher:  Graywolf Press, Minneapolis & Iambik Audiobooks, Montreal (2010)
Audiobook ISBN:  978 1 9266 7301 1
Print ISBN:  978 1 5559 7559 3