French writer Yasmina Reza is best known for her expertly structured plays, Art and God of Carnage and Happy Are The Happy is similar to those works in that its structure is what drives the narrative.
This short book defies categorisation. The cover describes it as a novel, the length suggests a novella and the content is a series of twenty short, interconnected chapters, narrated by a range of characters, which crackle with inventiveness and playfulness. These characters are all connected, some intimately and others in more oblique ways and although these connections are at times vague, the attentive reader will be rewarded.
The book opens with a ridiculous domestic argument in a supermarket cheese aisle and ends with the scattering of ashes and all of life is featured in between. While it might initially seem like Reza has eschewed plot, Happy Are the Happy is actually an expertly told story.
Each of its short chapters, titled with the name of the character speaking, is told in the first person and concerns, for the most part, other characters in the book who we may or may not have already met. Everyone gets their say in voices that are authentic, self-aware and often vulnerable. These characters are not happy and think that everyone else is, or are searching for happiness often in the wrong places.
And everybody here, high and low, more or less old, more or less happy, doggedly holding their own in the ranks of the living. All of them completely alone.
Robert and Odile Toscano are a power couple who never stop arguing. They are jealous of their friends Pascaline and Lionel Hutner, who seem to have the perfect, loving relationship but who are trying to cover up the fact that their beloved son has just been committed to a mental hospital. I won’t reveal why, but his condition perfectly illustrates Reza’s ability to combine the painful and the ridiculous at the same time. Odile’s father Ernest Blot, has an ongoing argument with his wife Jeanette about cremation versus burial, while his good friend Jean Ehrenfield is undergoing chemotherapy under the care of conflicted consultant Philip Chemla, whose secretary Virginie is having an affair with Robert Toscano.
This should give you an idea of the inventiveness of the links that Reza has drawn between her characters. In fact, to keep everything straight in my head, I drew this chart, so that I could have a visual representation of the world that she has created.
I have read many books that have interconnected characters, but I don’t think I have read one that is so well done. As the reader recognises each new connection, an added layer of depth is created, exploring how our lives are tied to many more people that we can ever realise and how the smallest of decisions can affect people that we don’t even know.
Reza depicts small moments of intense drama, which belie the tensions and frustrations of her character’s lives. Raoul Barneche, a professional gambler who plays bridge with his wife, has a meltdown at the card table, eating a King of Clubs, when his wife makes a poor move. Consultant Philip Chemla, cordial and warm to his patients, is addicted to buying sex from strange men, undoubtedly due to abuse as a child by his older brother. Famous actor Loula Moreno seems to have it all, but the lack of interest from her lover Darius, is drawing her closer to her chauffeur Damian.
Success, Reza suggests, is no protection against yearning or regret. The book is full of philandering men and the lonely women who put up with them. People get sick, they have accidents, they lie, and throughout it all, they strive always for happiness. Several themes come to the fore here – is happiness possible between couples over the long-term? Is a happy childhood necessary to attain happiness as an adult? Is there ever a time when we can admit that happiness has eluded us? What is more striking about Happy Are The Happy is that Reza has managed to explore all these themes and much more within a mere 145 pages, chipping away at the veneer of life to present the secrets lurking within.
A particular shout out must go to John Cullen for his expert translation. He has captured the essence of each individual character to perfection all the while maintaining an atmosphere of mischievous originality and invention.
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