Novellas in Translation Week: The Front Seat Passenger by Pascal Garnier, translated by Jane Aitken #NovNov22

I am kicking off Novellas in Translation week with a review of The Front Seat Passenger by Pascal Garnier, an intriguing slice of Gallic noir that is deceptively simple, yet incredibly entertaining and told in spare mordant prose.

The protagonist of this short, sharp narrative is Fabien, a remote middle-aged married man. As the novella opens, he is making a habitual visit to his father, a man who has never recovered from being abandoned by his wife, Fabien’s mother. Fabien cannot comprehend this depth of loss and that lack of comprehension is played out when he returns home to Paris to the news that his wife Sylvie has been killed in a car accident in Dijon. Sylvie was not supposed to be in Dijon and it transpires that she was the front seat passenger in a car being driven by her lover, who has also been killed.

Fabien was the child of two phantoms, with the absence of one and the silence of the other providing his only experience of family. They had each carved out their own isolated little existence, that was all.

Fabien was aware of problems in their marriage, but was not prepared for this news and driven by a vague kind of revenge, he proceeds to track down and stalk Martine, the insipid and shy widow of Sylvie’s dead lover.  It’s not quite clear why he does this, but the presence of an older companion, Madeleine, who acts as a kind of emotional bodyguard to Martine, makes Fabien all the more keen to attract Martine’s attention. When he discovers that the pair are planning a trip to Majorca, he follows them to the island and brings about a meeting, setting in motion a chain of events that will derail the lives of everyone involved.

Garnier is masterful at creating an atmosphere of suffocating menace and oppressive ambiguity. The question of why Fabien embarks on this relationship with Martine is left deliciously open. Is it revenge? Stealing the wife of the man who stole his? Alternatively, is it something darker and less easily understood?

Garnier seems to play with an overarching idea of fatalism, exploring the notion that although the car crash seems like the impetus for the events that follow, the fate of these five people has been entwined for much longer. Fabien’s upbringing and his inability to communicate seems to be the real starting point for what happens, suggesting that whatever happens will happen in a pre-determined manner that no one can foresee or change. Fabien’s lack of emotion acts as a form of preservation, but it also holds within it the seeds of his destiny.

This grotesque tale of bungled revenge is related with a discomfiting matter-of-factness. Garnier’s characters turn out to be entirely different from what the reader has come to expect, giving the story a marvellous unpredictability, which is as surreal as it is unnerving. He still manages to combine enough wit and dark humour to leaven the existential gloom and the novella is expertly translated by Jane Aitken who manages to capture the different layers of meaning and atmosphere.

This was my first experience with Pascal Garnier and I will definitely read more of his work.

Read on: Kindle
Number Read: 393
Number Remaining: 353

Novellas in November novels in translation

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

21 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Pascal Garnier is a new author (French) for me…and I’m hooked! Man suddenly learns of the death of his wife Sylvie, in a car accident ……. alongside her lover. This sounds like “another accident” waiting to happen…husbands need for revenge!


  2. Hmmm ok, this sounds good! I just read a novella about intertwined lives and “chance” encounters that are not chance at all, but I found it too “twisty” and it didn’t ring true. (Mouth to Mouth, it was on the Giller longlist).


  3. I’ve only read one Garner, The A26, which I quite enjoyed (for many of the same reasons as you list) so I’m surprised I haven’t got round to reading more of his little dark slices of life. Maybe this one should be next…


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