Frédéric Dard is a name familiar to French readers but not especially known in the English-speaking world. Pushkin Press has tried to redress this with four recent translations. This novel focuses on the story of Louise, a young factory worker from the town of Léopoldville in France. She lives a grim life with her mother and stepfather in this hum-drum town. She sees her life as consisting of nothing but ‘the factory, men groggy from wine and fatigue, the bitter stench of cabbages and a television screen’. As she’s returning from work one day though, she observes a glamorous American couple in an elegant mansion and resolves there and then to offer her services as a maid. The novel is told in retrospect through Louise’s eyes in a mixture of cynicism and matter-of-factness when referring to her home life but with wide-eyed naivety when surveying the life of her employers. The façade soon crumbles though as she realizes that Thelma, the American wife of the pair, is an alcoholic and after failing to bear a child, the couple’s conjugal life is like ‘a walk in the woods in winter’. Louise, however, is still happy to live life here, describing it as an ‘island’ of happiness until one day the couple are involved in a traffic accident (or is it an accident?) which leaves Thelma dead, though the husband Jess survives. It’s only then that Louise realizes she is in love with her employer herself. Eventually, though Jess grieves, he succumbs to Louise’s attentions, though he soon regrets it. Rejected, Louise reacts bitterly and accuses Jess of having fashioned the accident with his wife. This leads to consequences for Jeff.
I was very impressed with this dark psychological thriller. Dard is most closely associated with the famous Belgian crime novelist, Georges Simenon (both were enormously prolific), but personally I found Dard the more interesting – his style is less-pared down and more colourful and there are more touches of humour. He’s a bit more contemporary too and has a sharp eye for the telling psychological detail. Although dark, his novel has the feel of real life and Dard drew on his experiences for his novels and in contemplating his own death to an interviewer, only regretted that he wouldn’t be able to write about it! This novel was highly entertaining as well as being psychologically convincing and I hope to read more of Dard. I anticipated one or two plot twists but was unprepared for the shocking revelation in the final lines.