THE LAST LIFE
By Claire Messud
Harcourt Brace. 352 pp. $24
Reviewed by John Crowley
Claire Messud's second novel opens with an event that signals the beginning of a family's disintegration and her heroine's growing up. Sagesse LaBasse is the heroine, a French teenager, child of a family of repatriated French Algerians living on the south coast of France; her mother was American but has lived since her marriage in France, becoming as French as she can. The event is Sagesse's outraged grandfather's firing of his gun into a swimming pool full of noisy teenagers, wounding two of them. The pool is that of his own three-star resort hotel, the Bellevue, center of the LaBasse family universe. Sagesse wasn't in the pool, but she was in a grotto beside it, having a fumbling first sexual encounter. Exactly why Grand-pere fired into the pool remains indistinct; he is a self-made man holding deep historical grudges, tyrannical and oppressive to his feckless son, Sagesse's father. The shooting and its implications have rich comic potential, but that's not what this novel is up to: This is a story of how we are held by our histories, even as our histories withdraw from us and are lost in time and changes.
Algeria and the French withdrawal from it have been a central problem in the modern history of France, one of the wrenching tales of colonialism's end. Sagesse imagines her way into the lives of her father's and her grandfather's generations, recreating them in novelistic detail, in the manner of Proust's Marcel imagining the interior life of Swann. Her father's unwillingness to leave Algiers even as the French population flees, watching by his grandmother's deathbed and then having no choice but to carry her horribly heavy coffin to the docks when he leaves on the last boat, is an effective scene -- though a little spoiled by the author's assumption that a sealed wooden coffin dropped into the sea would obligingly sink, rather than bob to the surface like Ishmael's.
Sagesse's father performs the most disruptive act of violence in the story, far more final than the grandfather's gunplay, but this, too, Sagesse's meditations are incapable of unraveling. His son, Sagesse's brother Etienne, is in a wheelchair, apparently with cerebral palsy, incapable of speech and believed to be mentally disabled, though no one seems to know for sure (the family can afford nurses but not teachers, apparently, and no one tries to reach him). So the cause of the father's act may be Etienne, or his own domineering father, or his empty philandering, but Sagesse (and we) can't know. Etienne himself remains, as so many people with disabilities do in novels, not a person but a symbol: "He lived like Friday before Crusoe, alone in his paradise, or in his hell, but not knowing it to be either. . . ."
Novels of memory face a particular technical challenge. The narrator, having the whole of his or her history in mind at once, is free to recall it in any order, compare and contrast details from different times, and begin again as often as needed at a new point in the story, which is in fact over before the telling starts. Messud is certainly conscious of this, and uses the opportunities it offers; and yet it seems to me she makes a major error in the telling of the father's deed, the central event of Sagesse's life. We would expect it to come either at the end of the story or at the beginning of the plot -- that is, to be the mystery that must be solved. It falls out instead like a badly wrapped gift, placed neither at the time it happened chronologically nor in any other privileged position.
Sagesse will eventually leave for her mother's country and become outwardly an American, living in her New York apartment with her great-grandmother's magical watercolor of the Bay of Algiers on her wall, brooding on the implications of her family's story. The chronology of the novel suggests that she is now in her mid-twenties, a little young for the Proustian investigations she is embarked on. The voice we hear in the book is not that of a passionate and just-emergent teenager, but neither does it have the distance, the wisdom and irony, that these very familiar problems of history and family require. Many pages of the book are spent on such ruminations as these: "Words, meaningless though they might ring, as wrongly as we may interpret them, are the only missiles with which we are equipped, which we can lob across the uncharted terrain between our souls."
If Claire Messud were not the author of an earlier, and well-received, book, (When the World was Steady), a reader of The Last Life might well think that he was watching a young writer learning her trade: entranced with the sound of her own voice, discovering odd words and figures to use, trying out techniques that she will one day master.
John Crowley's new novel, "Daemonomonia," will appear in the fall.