The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 5 July 2005


by Annie Ernaux

There isn't much in our lives that affects us as much as our cultural backgrounds. Except, perhaps, our individual family histories. In this short book, which reads like a novel, but sounds like a memoir, French author Annie Ernaux reflects upon a violent day in her childhood, and how it has affected her life over nearly fifty years. In June of 1952, she writes, her father, in a burst of fury, threatened to kill her mother. Until that moment, all seemed normal to her. At the age of 12, though, she had to face the possibility that her family was outside the norm, poorer and more pathetic than the families who frequented their cafe. Before then, little Annie attended a Catholic school, which placed her above many of her village contemporaries. Her family were shop owners, so she felt materially well-off, as well. But the reality seems to be cast in relief by the glare of the shocking events of that one day. Mom and dad's regular arguments have now gone over the edge, and Annie sees this as a sign that they're just as downtrodden as many of the unstable families in her experience. This one event colors the rest of her life. She feels shamed by it, and by her self-image in a society that so values "normalcy". Even later realizing that this didn't really make them so specially pathetic doesn't seem to help. Ernaux projects this shame upon so much else in her life. It seems somehow extreme. Overall, though, this very short book is more a memoir of one childhood in the tiny French village of Y in the middle of the 20th century. So, there is much cultural information here, a view into French life. Ultimately, it is uncertain whether Ernaux makes the case for lifelong shame. But she writes with undeniable passion and conviction.

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Also by Ernaux: [Simple Passion]

[Other Books by Women Authors]