Warning: plot elements appear throughout this piece.
An antiquarian bookshop in the Latin Quarter, a painstakingly restored eighteenth-century apartment with cherubs on the ceiling dome, a sprawling manor house that hides an appalling secret, a cobblestoned village with its own castle and ancient underground water supply – these are some of the locales in which the action of Marion Halligan’s latest novel, set entirely in France, takes place.
Valley of Grace centres round Fanny and Gérard, a Parisian couple who seem classic in conception rather than beings of the early twenty-first century. Their conventional tale of love and marriage is connected to the lives of myriad other characters with their own experiences of love, desire and, in many cases, loss.
Fanny and Gérard’s romance seems to preclude the complications of sexual politics. But sexual politics are paramount in a parallel tale that, while it appears to disappear, rivals this one in its centrality to the novel.
Sabine is the wife of Jean-Marie, a celebrated professor of philosophy. She tends to his every need, deftly ensuring that their smooth bourgeois existence rolls along perfectly, allowing him a serene environment in which he is able to think great (but surely disembodied) thoughts. This scenario promises plot developments full of rich irony.
When Gérard, a builder who lovingly restores old buildings, decides to buy a rundown manor house in the suburbs, he makes a chilling discovery that reverberates through the lives of both couples.
Halligan, a distinguished Canberra novelist who is also an essayist, short-story writer and critic, clearly adores France. She is obviously familiar with Paris and the setting enables her to explore themes that might have played out less vividly in an Australian locale. It also lends the story something of a fairytale quality.
Halligan’s Paris is one of grace and historical continuity, of elegant shops that refuse the garishness of their Australian counterparts, of open air food markets from which can be bought the freshest goats cheese and finest foie gras, of streets through which medieval pilgrims have walked, of crisp champagne and neighbourhood bistros. She’s also fascinated by the traditional architecture of French villages and the histories they sometimes hide and sometimes display.
Halligan’s Paris is comfortably white and bourgeois, with little of the economic discord conveyed by news reports about this overcrowded city. The internet, raunch culture and iPods are all absent. But change is still evident, though subtle: Luc, the owner of the bookshop in which Fanny works, lives with his boyfriend, Julien; their lesbian friends Claude and Agnès want to conceive a child. Fanny and Gérard are themselves trying to conceive, and at one point consider IVF.
If France is almost a character in this novel, its main theme could be the rights and wrongs of the bourgeois life that this country epitomises so well – what has made it possible, what keeps it going, what appears to threaten it.
In Halligan’s France, bourgeois culture is valued and handed down through the generations, and the past is honoured. The simple love story of Fanny and Gérard that opens the novel, in which an only child is seen off to a prosperous marriage by her doting parents, calls to mind the end of one of Shakespeare’s comedies with its essential rightness: ‘Don’t they make a lovely couple, said everybody at the wedding, and indeed they do, he so dark and vigorous and glowing with sun-browned health, she so slender and fair and radiant’.
It’s significant that Gérard makes his money by lovingly restoring old buildings; the carved cherubs he finds on the ceiling as he renovates his own apartment seem to symbolise this effortless continuity. And while his more prosaic father-in-law, André, knocks buildings down and builds new ones, even he has retained, in the block of the modern apartment he lives in with his wife, Cathérine, a patch of garden that is a symbolic trace of the old.
But Halligan is wary of over-valorising bourgeois life. For a start, civilisation itself is often built on a past that was anything but civilised. Fanny and her mother decide to revisit the village of Cathérine’s childhood as the daughter of a French Resistance member. Here, Halligan is alive to the force and weight of history: the horrors of the German occupation and the life-and-death decisions made by collaborators and resistance fighters are still very real for Cathérine. Yet she’s also clearly a beneficiary of the post-war prosperity that has enabled French culture to once more flourish.
Moreover, the character of Jean-Marie is a chilling demonstration of the kinds of sacrifices that might be necessary for a traditional sense of order to prevail. Sabine is required to run the household so smoothly it does not even hum; instead, it’s ‘like an animal organism whose gentle breathing you might hear as a kind of comforting rhythm if you listened quietly’. Jean-Marie’s sexual use of women rivals the males in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in its egregious misogyny.
In fact, Halligan uses the character of Jean-Marie to mercilessly send up the world and worldview of the male French intellectual (one wonders if there’s an intended resemblance to any real-life philosophers). He’s an ethical and psychological nightmare, an anachronistic figure who uses women to undergird and maintain the material basis of his existence in a way that is chillingly reminiscent of Luce Irigaray’s critique of male subjectivity.
Nor is Halligan unaware of the mundane forces that enable the leisurely lifestyles of her comfortably-off characters – Luc’s bookshop is bankrolled by his rich father’s chain of pharmacies.
And even prosperity has its dangers: if civilisation becomes too concerned with outward form, it loses its right to name itself as such. The discovery of a long-ago crime in the suburbs reveals the lengths a supposedly civilised couple have been willing to go to in order to hide a socially embarrassing event.
For Halligan, the perfect imperfection of children is the key to avoiding these dangers of civilisation and providing renewal, both in a personal and a societal sense. The inalienable ‘rightness’ of children and the desire for them are bursting out of this novel:
Taking an angry or maybe anguished baby and changing it from a stiff protesting awkward bundle into a relaxed kitten-like creature seems to Fanny as important a thing as anybody could ever do.The contradictions that the advent of children produce breathe life into the novel. Children are a source of hope and optimism and everything that makes life worthwhile. But they are also disruptive of the serenity and order that a masculinist version of the bourgeois life might strive for; at one point, the formerly elegant Sabine appears with ‘a half-naked baby under her arm and smudges of white powder on her brown cashmere jumper’.
Yet even here, bourgeois culture falters. There are damaged children in this novel, and in theory, the family unit should be able to love them into life and happiness. But the truth is more discomforting, and French society as the novel sees it cannot absorb these children into itself.
Fans of Halligan will find here her usual careful attention to the sensuous and aesthetic delights that life offers. Food’s an obvious one of course – Halligan has won awards for her gastronomic writing, and France enables her to go to town, so to speak. We read of foie gras pan-fried with caramelised apples, of quince preserves, hand-made chocolates and baby lamb cutlets. There’s even an appalling French restaurant meal that Halligan has fun with, a travesty of the real thing, with Cathérine anticipating a version of a French cake traditionally cooked on a spit: ‘The cake at La Table de Aveyron is industrial. She wonders how you make it in a factory but you clearly can’.
The novel is also replete with baroque architecture, musty old leatherbound books, beautifully hand-stitched children’s wear and myriad French gardens, both the ramshackle and the quietly ordered. Halligan evokes all the senses to bring these aspects of the world of the novel alive. This accumulation of detail is one of her skills, and the book is feminist to the extent that Halligan insists on the role of food and domesticity in general as expressions of a society’s priorities.
But many of the characters seem to be sketched: slightly vague figures who sometimes reveal information about their pasts at moments that seem convenient for the novel but belated or unnecessary in real life. It’s as if they are still in Halligan’s head and voicing her concerns rather than being allowed lives of their own.
We don’t know, for example, why Sabine has been so compliant over the years; we don’t know why Cathérine leaves it so late to tell her daughter, Fanny, about her past. At one point, she tells the thirty-year-old Fanny: ‘As for the house … Grandfather had other children, I suppose they got it. Or their heirs’. This seems an oddly distant way to speak about one’s aunts and uncles. Fanny and Gérard seemed a bit generic to me, a kind of Eros and Psyche; I kept waiting for the conflict that would bring them both into sharper focus.
These factors will not bother every reader. In some ways, the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch could have been accused of forcing her characters to live out her own philosophical concerns. Murdoch’s characters are chaotic and unpredictable, sometimes making dramatic, sweeping changes to their lives that seem to have been dreamed up by the author for the sake of effect, but this has never been a problem for her many fans.
An earlier novel of Halligan’s that I’ve read, The Fog Garden, was essentially a meditation on grief. It was a particularly personal exploration and didn’t follow the traditional form of the novel, and I remember thinking as I read it that it would be interesting to see what Halligan would do with a more conventional approach. But in Valley of Grace, Halligan also plays around with convention, particularly in relation to plotting.
The novel has been described as a set of linked short stories, although this is not quite accurate – there’s just too much linkage between the seven sections. Unfortunately, the result is that many plot threads start promisingly and don’t so much cease as fade into the background; or they do return too briefly to the foreground, much later.
I should temper my criticism here, though: Halligan’s aims in relation to the plot are clear enough. There’s something nineteenth-century about it, in that Halligan’s priority is to show us a lot of different human situations and contexts. And given the structure, it would be unfair to expect the same events to be foregrounded in each of them.
But the effect is that just as the reader is getting intrigued about where a plot thread is going, the scenery changes, and the lost thread never quite regains its former prominence. Perhaps the novel isn’t ambitious enough; perhaps it should have been larger in scope, with sufficient time to take the reader more thoroughly through the travails of the main characters.
One last criticism is that the time scheme seems a bit confused. The novel doesn’t seem to be imprinted with the zeitgeist of any particular era and this is of course the advantage of setting it in France, a country that prides itself on retaining its traditions. But there are no signals to suggest that it is set clearly in, say, the 1980s rather than the present, and if it is set in the present, Cathérine seems too young to have been a child during the Second World War. The dark story of the manor house also seems a bit anachronistic, but in this case the French setting muddies the waters a bit.
This isn’t to say that Valley of Grace fails, or that it’s not worth reading. Halligan’s observations about life are often sharp and fresh – she’s great at providing the telling detail. And she deftly explores grand themes through the quotidian, while the unexpected shifts enable her to reveal a variety of human dilemmas. If you read this book without expecting to fall in love with the characters, or as a literary escape from some of the grittier edges and conflicts of contemporary reality, there is much to be gleaned.