Trap for Cinderella: Sébastien Japrisot (1962)

Sèbastien Japrisot’s mystery novel starts like a fairy tale with that familiar phrase: “Once upon a time, long ago,” but this is no fairy tale. The first chapter, following the fairy tale format but with the title, I Would Have Murdered, describes the relationship between a godmother, Aunt Midola, and three little girls, Mi (Michèle), Do (Dominque) and La. Mi, the godmother’s favourite is “the prettiest, and Do is the most intelligent. La will soon be dead.” The godmother leaves and returns rich. Again that fairy tale mythos as it’s revealed that all the trappings of the story may simply be the way in which the children rationalise things in the adult world that they cannot understand. The chapter ends with a touch of reality and the information that Mi is the rich one while Do, the less favoured girl, grows up seeing pictures of Mi in “glossy magazines.”

Then the novel segues into the real story when a young girl wakes up in a hospital room. She has amnesia and is told by her doctor that she was horribly burned in a fire 3 months previously. She is told that Domenica is dead, killed by the fire in the villa that also burned her (Michèle). She is told by a woman named Jeanne that the two girls, Michèle and Domenica, grew up together with Domenica’s mother the laundress for Michèle’s mother. Right away, of course, it’s all very creepy. Imagine you recover from some prolonged drug-induced period to be told who you are, to have your character explained to you. Michèle remembers nothing and she’s ‘fed’ her past by Jeanne, the woman who claims to have cared for Michèle since she was a baby.

In spite of the gaps, I gradually formed an image of myself which did not tally with the person I had become. I was not so foolish, so vain, so violent. I had no desire to drink, to hit a stupid maid, to dance on top of a car, to fall into the arms of a Swedish runner or the first boy who came along with a pretty face. But all that might seem incomprehensible to me because of the accident; that was not what bothered me the most. Above all I could not believe myself capable of the lack of feeling that had enabled me to go out drinking the night I learned of my aunt’s death and even to miss her funeral.

Jeanne removes Michèle from the hospital; she’s taken to a house and kept in isolation with just a handful of servants in attendance. Shaking off Jeanne’s constant presence, Michèle decides to confront her past and try to understand why Jeanne is keeping her in isolation. Is it for her protection as Jeanne insists? Or is something else afoot? Trap for Cinderella is one of those mysteries that doesn’t have a simple conclusion. It would have been a perfect book for the Pushkin Vertigo line as the main character sinks into a personal hell from which there is no escape. The burn/amnesia thing is not an uncommon plot device, so there was little freshness there, but the ending, if it can be called that, was intriguing.

Review copy

Translated by Helen Weaver

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Filed under Fiction, Japrisot Sébastien, posts

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