‘The Birthday Party’ by Laurent Mauvignier (Review – IBP 2023, Number Six)

After a quick visit to an Iceland seen through Catalan eyes, it’s time to embark on the next leg of our International Booker Prize longlist journey, and today sees us heading south for a couple of days in the French countryside.  We’re here to attend a party, and congratulate someone on a nice, round number of years – alas, what was meant to be an intimate family gathering is about to get a whole lot bigger, and nastier…

The Birthday Party by Laurent Mauvignier
– Fitzcarraldo Editions, translated by Daniel Levin Becker
(digital review copy courtesy of the publisher)
What’s it all about?
In a small hamlet in the French provinces, preparations are underway to celebrate a very special day.  Marion is turning forty, and her husband Patrice and daughter Ida are excitedly getting ready for a fun evening, with their next-door neighbour Christine, an elderly artist, also pitching in (albeit reluctantly).  Patrice, in particular, has high hopes for the occasion, crossing his fingers that some of the affection that his wife seems to have lost for him will make a fleeting reappearance around the dinner table.

From the start, though, there are signs that events might not go as planned.  Christine has been getting anonymous messages, necessitating a visit to the police station, and Patrice’s trip to the nearest large town to pick up a present is also derailed for a number of reasons.  However, that’s nothing compared to what’s to follow at the party itself.  You see, one of the party guests has a few skeletons in their closet, and tonight’s the night when they will make a sudden, unexpected reappearance…

Having skimmed the above paragraphs, you’re probably thinking that it all sounds fairly straight-forward, and that a quick set-up will lead to a concentrated showdown, an hour or two of Gallic drama, perhaps.  However, that’s certainly not the case, and my first duty here is to warn any potential reader that Mauvignier doesn’t like to rush his story.  This is less a quick snack of a book than an extended French midday meal, with multiple courses, wine and a cognac to help it all go down, five-hundred pages taking us from a sinister start to a shocking finale.

Partly owing to a careful set-up, the writer introduces the main cast rather slowly, hinting at their troubles along the way.  We learn about the ties between the group, such as how farmer Patrice met his wife a while back in the nearby town, and the connection with Christine, the old family friend who has fled to the country for some peace and quiet.  It’s only when the silence of the hamlet is broken by visitors that the story starts to roll forward, if at a languid pace.

I’m choosing not to say much about the other main characters here, as anticipation and speculation is part of the fun of the book, but suffice it to say that they’re not here to drop off a present and leave.  These are ghosts of the past, come back to haunt the one who left them behind, and given there’s something they want, they won’t leave until they get it.  In a sense, they embody one of the novel’s main themes, the way life always catches up with you, making you face up to behaviour you thought long buried under the sands of time.

However, The Birthday Party is also a book reflecting on our lives now.  We soon learn that by this point Patrice and Marion are married in name only, and both wonder how they got to this stage.  Patrice, especially, finds himself wanting to bring the old times back, but is helpless to do so, and Mauvignier’s writing reflects this frustration, giving his creations ample space to dwell on their misfortunes.

Of course, there’s no getting past the slow nature of the text, with the writer frustratingly, begrudgingly at times, moving us forward inch by inch.  This steady progress has the effect of evoking a certain mood, a sense that everything’s going downhill, without revealing exactly why.  The tension, as shown in a scene from around the dinner table, has the effect of pushing everyone to breaking point:

But she still can’t bear it, this steadiness, as though Patrice’s eyes are too inquisitive for her to take this face-to-face – as though she’s unable to expect anything from it but a confrontation or even already a condemnation, a sort of accusation she fears she won’t be able to bear in this moment, imagining she won’t be able to even though she wants to find his eyes, yes, with all her heart, she wants to find in him an answer to her anguish, understanding, love, she’s sure he’d understand, sure he’d see she wants to apologize because already it’s as though everyone has agreed to say that what’s happening tonight is partly her fault and, although she wants to apologize for this evening, now she wants Patrice to forgive her for everything she’s put him through for years, which she knows he endures almost without a word, getting angry sometimes because he’s had too much to drink or because his patience has run out… (p.292)

In truth, by this point in the tale, Patrice isn’t the only one whose patience is being tried – I suspect many readers will also be feeling the strain…

What exacerbates the tension, and frustration, is the way Mauvignier delights in hinting about what’s to come, frequently focusing on the future, often at the expense of the present.  Even when we do get to what we think are pivotal scenes, the writer seems more interesting in cutting away from the important conversations, focusing more on the reactions of others, thoughts rather than words:

…because Bergogne is speaking to his daughter to hide from himself that he wants to hear and refuses to hear what’s happening in the dining room, that he’d like to understand and that everything in him refuses to understand… (p.323)

It’s a dangerous game he’s playing, relying on the reader being invested enough to forgive him for his teasing style, and not everyone will go along for the whole ride.

If you do, though, it all proves to be worth the bumpy journey, however excruciating it can be at times.  As the minutes pass, tempers fray, and we finally find out the reason for the visit, with events building to an inevitable, and bloody, climax.  I’ll leave it there for now – all I’ll add is that it certainly makes me think twice about having a birthday party of my own in future.

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
While reading The Birthday Party, I was mainly concerned with moaning about how slow and frustrating it was, but after finishing it and reflecting on where it stood in my rankings, I was surprised to find that the answer was ‘quite high’.  While literary thrillers can often be not that literary and rather unthrilling, you can’t fault Mauvignier’s writing (and Levin Becker’s translation of this into English), and even if the slow pace means that the reader usually twigs what’s happening before the characters do, it’s still intriguing and (mostly…) enjoyable.  I’m not convinced that there are a lot of potential shortlisters in the books I have left to read, so it’s very likely that this will end up in my top six.

Will it make the shortlist?
I think it probably will.  It’s a little different to the other books I’ve read so far, and I think perhaps the most accomplished of the three French-language books on the longlist (of which I’m convinced at least one will make the cut).  It’s also a very shortlisty type of book, and one that would go down well with readers and commentators alike.  Oh, and it’s a Fitzcarraldo book, so enough said 😉

I’m not a big fan of washing up, especially when there’s blood involved, so let’s rush off to the airport now to catch a flight to our next destination.  We’re heading off to the Caribbean to soak up the sun and meet some interesting people, with one man in particular turning heads wherever he goes.  But is there something special about him, or is he just a very naughty boy?  Find out very soon…


4 thoughts on “‘The Birthday Party’ by Laurent Mauvignier (Review – IBP 2023, Number Six)

  1. Very interesting Tony – 500-odd pages *is* a big commitment and I suspect you’d need to be in the right frame of mind and also have a good bit of reading time set aside so you could get through this in a reasonable time. But it *does* sound very intriguing… ;D


  2. I think I had a similar reading experience – frustrated at times, though there is something hypnotic about the prose – but eventually won over. I also think this has good chance of making the shortlist.


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