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Review: Le Pays des autres by Leïla Slimani

This book is the third novel by one of my favorite French authors, Leïla Slimani. It follows the first ten years of Mathilde and Amine's marriage, in the immediate aftermath of World War II, and ends on the first violent outbreak of Morocco's war of independence in the 1950s. Amine is a Moroccan who served in the colonial army during the war to liberate France; Mathilde is, at the novel's start, twenty years old and never left her village in her native Alsace. The only brush she's ever had with the real world is when Amine's regiment was stationed in her village, when they met. They got married, and Mathilde moved with Amine to his farm in Morocco. The novel traces the interconnected lives of the couple, Amine's mother and sister Selma and brother Omar, and the people around the couple on their farm and from their past.

Now, my first stipulation is that I don't think books that try and tell the story of a long stretch of time work nearly as well as books that stick to telling one specific story. It's really hard to suffuse a novel of ten years' duration, that doesn't tell one specific story, with the kind of stakes and momentum and resolution that you get in one narrative arc. But the introspective, long-range novels are something that a lot of French authors do - and I think that this novel would have worked a lot better if Slimani had focused on just one character, and told the story of the ten years through just Mathilde's eyes, or just Selma's, or even just Amine's. The fact that the novel skipped around so much, around so many different people and through so many different moments, gave it a meandering, hopscotch quality that didn't lend itself to a compelling story.

However, having said that, Slimani is an excellent writer and her skill at getting into her characters' minds, at rendering large, complex, difficult situations with all the shades of nuance they deserve, and the great capacity she has at capturing and freezing moments, with all the weight of the setting and the scenery and the atmosphere, really shine through in this novel. Her descriptions of the lonely, isolated farm that Mathilde and Amine are laboring over for ten years are vividly eerie, and you can very easily picture it while you're reading the scenes that are set there. Her writing of Mathilde was excellent, and I think if we had been allowed to spend all 360 pages of the book with Mathilde, we would have gotten someone of magnificent contradictions and strength of will, whereas, because of how much it skipped around, we only got flashes of the weight she's carrying around. I think it's also possible that I felt a strong kinship with Mathilde in a way I didn't with the rest of the characters - which brings me to another excellent point of this book: the way Slimani handles the concept of expatriation and homesickness.

She does a really beautiful job of rendering how difficult, multi-layered, and complex being in that position is: the way you never quite feel like you belong in any place; not being able to easily call to mind what or where home is; always feeling like you belong in the other place, that you're the other wherever you are; and the sadness of constantly feeling like you are never in any position to talk about how difficult being an expat is, because it's a choice you've made and you now have to carry it. Slimani puts that feeling into words in a better way than anybody I have ever read, and does a phenomenal job of conveying the weight of that feeling, and how heavy it is to carry it around with you; the way it colors every interaction you ever have.

The one negative point, however, is her treatment of Amine. I think you're meant to feel sorry for Amine: he served in the colonial army and he's constantly treated, by the native Moroccans and the French colonial occupying force, like he's not one of them - for the Moroccans because he served in the French army and has a French wife; by the French because he's Moroccan. He, like Mathilde, is torn between two worlds and struggling to adapt to a changing social and political order, but - and again, this is because we spend so much time flitting between characters - we never spend enough time in Amine's head to get his point of view. Instead, all we really see of him is: him being embarrassed because his wife is taller than him; him insisting his wife converts to Islam and changes her name (without their ever being any point in the novel where this is addressed or discussed, by any of the characters); argues against his daughter going to school because who would want to marry a literate woman; threatens to shoot his sister, his wife, and his daughter when he finds out his sister is dating a Frenchwoman; forces his sister to marry a man who's at least twice her age and lives in his family's outhouse; beats his wife; rapes his wife; makes his wife feel guilty for being homesick; forces his wife into wearing a niqab; makes his wife account to him for everything she spends in town; regularly talks about how he wants a wife who doesn't speak, argue, or ask him for anything and who is shorter than him. We're meant to see him as someone who struggles being caught between two worlds, but really, all he is is a wifebeater with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. There's one section in the book where the daughter talks about how she thought makeup was invented so her mother could hide her bruises - and I literally howled, I found that so sad. I'm sorry, Leïla, but unless you spend 300 pages convincing me why this guy is someone I should feel sorry for, I think anybody who breaks his wife's nose and splits her lip open, and threatens to shoot his sister and his daughter because his sister 'dishonored' him, is a creature worthy of my sympathy or respect. And the fact that that's probably what we're supposed to feel for him left a bad taste in my mouth.

But, globally, this book is good: it treats several different subjects with respect and nuance, even if you don't agree with the takeaway at the end of the novel. Her treatment of homesickness and the complexity of love in times of great change is delicate and brilliantly written. And, at the end of the day, Leïla Slimani is a wonderfully talented author and her skill with the language shines through the entire book. This is not my favorite of her three books, but I will continue to read her novels eagerly.

I hope everyone is staying safe and healthy - and that you are enjoying all this extra reading time!

Happy reading,

Amélie xx

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I’m Amélie, I love books and reading, and I also love talking about them.

I’m incredibly lucky to be bilingual, so I read books in both French and English, and will talk about both of those on here – although I will do more in English, since I know that’s probably what the majority of the people who ever find this blog will be interested in!

I also like history, traveling, Shakespeare, coffee, cheese, musicals, Italian Baroque art, the ballet, Mock the Week and Have I Got News For You, flowers, makeup, high heels, and baking. Yes, I’m a walking cliché. I am aware.

Please do tweet at me with any suggestions/book recommendations/thoughts.

In case you’re curious – yes, Pride and Prejudice is my favorite book of all time.