Author: Sheila Kohler
Genre: Fiction (France / Ethiopia / 1970s / Displaced Person / December-May Affair / Torture / Homosexuality / Writers / Murder)
Publisher/Publication Date: Penguin (6/26/2012)
Source: The publisher.
Rating: Loved -- another top ten for 2012.
Did I finish?: I did, although I didn't want to be done!
Reading Challenges: A-to-Z, Historical Fiction, Immigrant Stories
Do I like the cover?: Love it -- it doesn't have a deceptively bucolic picture of Sardinia or Paris but rather, the damaged photo that intimates the character of M., Dawit's imperious lover, and Dawit himself -- is he frightened? Hiding? Spying?
I'm reminded of...: Marguerite Duras, Daphne DuMaurier, Patricia Highsmith
First line: Dawit is sitting at the back of the cafe in the shadows, when he notices her.
Did... I immediately think of Marguerite Duras as I read?: YES. Kohler's character of M. seemed just like Duras, right down to the similarly named novels and childhood romances. In her Acknowledgements, Kohler mentions her.
Do... I want this to become a movie, stat?: YES. A Merchant-Ivory affair, please, very visually stunning and unapologetically dark. YUM!
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, do it, do it! Darkest beach reader ever, in the best way.
Why did I get this book?: The jacket blurb mentioned Nadine Gordimer and Patricia Highsmith and that immediately sold me!
Review: Three things: 1) why did this book have to end?; 2) why is Sheila Kohler not sitting next to me telling me stories all the time?; and 3) why are Kohler's novels not all in my hands this very instant?
Four word review: I adored this book.
Set in the mid-1970s, the novel follows Dawit, a young Ethiopian exile in Paris. After his family was brutally executed following the overthrow of Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia, Dawit was imprisoned and tortured. A guard who was once a childhood friend helps Dawit escape, and he crosses into France illegally, living at the margins, a displaced person dependent on the generosity of friends. Born into a life of luxury, he has no skills as an illegal laborer, and when the story opens, Dawit is literally lingering over a coffee in a cafe, afraid to return to his friend's home without means, when he spots M. M. is a famous French author, now in her 60s, notorious for her spare novels about her childhood love affair with a Somali man. M. is immediately taken with Dawit, and in a matter of days, sweeps him into her life, clearly wanting to relieve her affair.
What seems like a Cinderella story, of course, dissolves into something darker. As M.'s obsession with Dawit grows, he feels himself experiencing the same apprehension, fear, and tension he did while imprisoned in Ethiopia. Feelings of gratitude transform into resentment. As he grows healthier, bolder, stronger, M.'s need for him in her life grows as well, until --
You get the idea. It's dark, twisted, gruesome, gorgeous, chilling, amusing, cowardly and heroic. I closed the book in love with everyone, messed up as they are, captivated by the superficial and glamorous world of 1970s Paris, Sardinia, and Rome. Pretty people, ugly secrets.
At 207 pages, this is a zippy fast read, but I lingered over this one because I didn't want it to end. Kohler's writing is spare, like Duras', like M.'s, but there's so much impact between the words. I was greatly reminded of Patricia Highsmith, right down to some of the plot elements, but found Kohler's homage to be delightful in its own right.
Also, I will say I consider this a historical novel in that it's a contemporary book written and set in the 1970s, flavored and influenced by that era. It feels vintage-y, in a way.
*** *** ***
I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Bay of Foxes to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only. Ends 7/20.