Marie Sizun’s Her Father’s Daughter is the first book I read in my 2018 In Translation Challenge. I read it last month, am only now getting a chance to review it, and am delighted to say that it was a great start to my 12-month challenge.
French novelist Marie Sizun’s Le père de la petite has been translated by Adriana Hunter and published in the UK as Her Father’s Daughter by Peirene Press. This short, taut novel is a concentrated and understated exploration of the vulnerable ties that exist within fragile familial relations.
Although ostensible a novel about the Second World War, Sizun uses her historical setting to explore ideas of betrayal, memory and fatherhood to create a questioning and nuanced story.
France, a young child living in Paris with her mother in the 1940s narrates the tale. A spoilt child, she draws on walls and books with impunity, screams and sings, eats and sleeps when she pleases. Her world comprises herself, her beloved mother and her stricter grandmother, but the child is happy, living in her little world where she has everything she needs.
France has never met her father, as he has been incarcerated in a German POW camp. To her, he is a picture on the dresser, no more real than the stories her mother tells of him. As the novel opens, the end of the war is drawing near and France’s cosy existence is shattered when her father returns from the war. France, and her mother, must recalibrate their lives to accommodate a man who is somewhat of a stranger to both of them and who is disconcerted to see how his daughter has been brought up in his absence. France no longer has her mother to herself and now she must try to navigate her father’s angry outbursts and the underlying tension that now exists in their apartment.
The affection of children is fickle and as the relationship between her mother and father comes under strain, France turns her allegiance to her father and in an attempt to solidify their love, she decides to tell her father a secret of her mother and grandmother’s – a secret that will ultimately tear the family apart.
The real skill of Her Father’s Daughter is that, although told solely through the voice of a five-year-old child, Sizun is able to convey surprising insight into the behaviour and emotions of the adults in France’s life. The prose is simple, written in short sentences, as befits a child narrator, but that only serves to clarify and crystallise the painful journey from innocence to experience. France may not fully realise what she has done until she is much older, but the ramifications are raw and immediate. By presenting the narrative through France’s experience, Sizun also allows for different interpretations. Can what the child is telling us be trusted? Is the way she interprets events how they have actually happened? Childhood memories are elusive, hazy and entirely influenced by the emotion of a situation; therefore, Her Father’s Daughter has an expansive illusiveness in that the reader can interpret events in different ways.
Her Father’s Daughter is part of the fairy tale series by Peirene Press and it does have that allegorical nature to the storytelling. The characters are usually referred to by their family roles – father, mother, child – rather than by their names and that gives the book an allegorical feel. There is also a sense of warning in the novel, reminiscent of the Brothers Grimm, suggesting that what we should learn from this is that not all secrets should, or need to be told. This is indeed, a cautionary tale.
The book is beautifully translated by Adriana Hunter, who has successfully captured the simplicity, innocence and at times malicious and fickle nature of the childhood voice. She also too retains the chimerical nature of the narrative, which offers no straight answers in this tale of twisted family relations.
What makes the book even more heart-rending is the fact that it is autobiographical and based on Sizun’s own fractured relationship with her father.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!