Too Close to the Edge is classic Pascal Garnier; it’s dark, it’s nasty, full of bitter ironies and the plot takes aim at some very specific societal taboos.
Widow Éliette has finally, after a year of mourning for Charles, her husband of forty years, arrived at a place of some contentment. They’d bought a former silk farm thirty years earlier and spent “every spare moment” fixing it up while planning to retire to this imagined peaceful, bucolic life. “They had already started packing for their move from the Parisian suburbs to this Saint-Vincent house in the Ardèche, where life was supposed to be a never ending holiday” when cancer hit, and Charles died just two months before his retirement. Éliette, against the advice of her children, Sylvie and Marc, went ahead with the retirement plans and now lives alone. They think she’s courting disaster; she can’t drive and the nearest village is 8 kilometres away.
Part of the reason that Éliette decides to move to the country is to establish a life for herself and not just be ‘the mother’ or ‘the grandmother’ to her children and their offspring. In fact relationships with her family have become an obligation, an annoyance more than anything else. She’s dreading an upcoming visit which she knows will be as tedious to her as it is so her children. She even makes excuses to get off the phone:
Of course she loved her children and her children’s children just as she might love the sky, the trees, the mountains, life in general–but after two days in their company she could no longer stand the sight of them.
Éliette relies on her neighbours, the Jauberts who own a farm 2 kilometres away. They see themselves as Éliette’s “protectors,” and in time the relationship has become “burdensome” to Éliette who finds the forced socialization boring. Shapeless Rose Jaubert wears “disgusting” nylon overalls every day because they’re so easy to hose off, and Paul Jaubert is a veteran of the Algerian war who harbours, as it turns out, violent homophobic behaviour.
It’s due to the dependence on the Jauberts that Éliette finally decides to buy an Aixam (I had to look this up,) which gives her independence and “changed her life.” In a novel full of black ironies, this “microcar” is the factor that opens the floodgates to the hellish events that occur for the rest of the book.
At 64, Éliette is still an attractive woman–slim “as though time had polished her with beeswax,” and she’s feeling a little frisky in the supermarket in Montélimar “convinced that every man in the shop was staring at her.”
In the vegetable aisle, she blushed as it dawned on her she had filled her trolley with courgettes, aubergines, carrots, cucumbers and even an enormous long white turnip weighing nearly 300 grams, which she struggled to make herself see in a culinary light. It was stronger than she was; a kind of inflammation of her mind was slowly turning the supermarket into a sex shop.
After buying some sexy underwear, she’s driving home when the Aixam has a puncture. There she is stuck on a country road in a rainstorm, miles from anywhere when an attractive middle-aged man in a three-piece suit, carrying a briefcase trudges up the road:
It was like a scene out of a Western: beneath a low sky, a stranger walks calmly towards his widescreen destiny.
Is the stranger going to be the man of Éliette’s dreams, or is his arrival the beginning of a nightmare? For those of you familiar with Garnier’s work, that’s a rhetorical question. I particularly liked this Garnier novel because it reminded me of Simenon’s Romans Durs (although much darker and much more perverse) for the way we see a main character who takes very little encouragement to go off the rails. I’m always fascinated by this sort of behaviour as it generates so many questions about human motivations.
Too Close to the Edge will probably make my best-of-year list. This is not a novel that would ever get the Booker, but if you’re at all familiar with Garnier, you know what to expect. I’ve read several Garnier novels so far, and here they are listed in order of preference:
Too Close to the Edge
Garnier is merciless with his characters, and in Too Close to the Edge, the sheltered Éliette, with her gardening plans and her new recipes, is the character who’s about to receive some painful lessons in life. Garnier seems to delight in stripping away bourgeois conventions and morality as he brings on the ‘true’ realities of his dark, amoral world: murder, greed, lust, and violence. After now reading 7 Garnier novels, it’s a good time to make some generalized comments about his themes.
- Don’t retire to the countryside
- Don’t pick up strangers
- Don’t wish for anything, because you’ll get it and wish you hadn’t.
Translated by Emily Boyce