Review: Les roses fauves by Carole Martinez
This was a truly lovely book, that mixed a lot of different things - it was part memoir, part fantasy, part historical fiction, part philosophical musing on Carole Martinez's journey as an author. The writing throughout was absolutely marvelous, and I found that once I stopped expecting the chronology or the narrative to follow a linear timescale (or make sense on any realistic plane, really) I really enjoyed the meanderings of this novel.
The premise is that Lola Cam, a woman who works in a post office in a town somewhere in Brittany, finds in an old wardrobe five sewn hearts that have been stuffed with the secrets of her ancestors. It's supposedly an old Andalusian custom, and her ancestors' hearts and secrets were brought to France when Lola's grandmother emigrated away from Spain during the Civil War. What starts off as a straight historical fiction very quickly turns into fantasy, as there are also World War I ghosts that come out of pictures, and the narrator gets lost between what's happening real life and her novel, and they plant 100-year-old seeds that end up blossoming into wild roses that grow faster than they should and smell so strongly they turn everyone a bit gaga. There's also a slew of chapters about different kinds of sexual awakenings, and how your sexuality and desires can change throughout your life, and I am comfortable admitting, those chapters were downright sexy.
There wasn't really a coherent story to judge in this novel, and if I had one criticism to make, I'd say that Carole Martinez tries to do a smidgen too much - for example, the urban legend about la boîteuse who haunts the town because her children were drowned, felt a bit unnecessarily tacked on in the latter third of the novel when the love story between Lola and a (very violently) method actor shooting a period film in the area started to lag. I also think the sudden shift in POV from the first couple of chapters was a bit jarring, and the novel would have been better served by Carole acting as the narrator from the off; but I loved the ambiguity of the ending and the fluidity of the genre shifts, and the recurring motif of the wild roses (those of the title - fauves is a slightly archaic term for wild; a loose translation would be closer to 'untamed').
And, most importantly - at least for me! - the writing in this book was absolutely exquisite. The metaphors are rich and layered and nuanced without ever being overblown; some really funny dialogue comes to liven up the mysticism; and the world-building is meticulously well-handled and fully immersive. I was so fully in this book that it took me a few hours to blink back to reality when I finished it. I also really liked being able to spend some time in Martinez's head as she mused on the process of writing a novel, and the relationship in her mind between love and the written word, and how she gets so lost in the process of world- and character-building that she can no longer keep track of reality.
All told, this was a spectacular book that amply merited its place on the Goncourt longlist, and will be in contention for my Top 10 of 2020 list. It was a beautiful read to sit with on a sunny day in my garden and I'm really looking forward to whatever Martinez puts out next - and I promise I will gift you a copy once it's been translated into English.