Borderless Book Club: ‘Summer of Reckoning’

This week’s Borderless Book Club welcomed Bitter Lemon Press to discuss Summer of Reckoning, written by Marion Brunet, and translated by Katherine Gregor. Bitter Lemon Press is a small independent publisher founded fifteen years ago that focuses on crime and noir translated literature. After reading a review of Summer of Reckoning in Le Monde, Bitter Lemon got in touch with the French publisher and proceeded to buy the rights. They then asked Katherine Gregor, a UK based translator from French and Italian, to translate the novel into English. I was interested to read this week’s book, as crime fiction is not a genre that I am usually drawn towards, and of course, it’s always good to delve into areas of fiction that I don’t typically pick up in order to avoid limiting my reading experience!

The summer of reckoning unravels in a small town in Southern France, and centres around the news of sixteen-year-old Céline’s pregnancy. Her quiet, stubborn, yet loving sister Jo is also tackling her own problems, and despite being a year younger than Céline, she remains a source of support and protection. Unfortunately, Céline’s parents do not react as kindly as Jo to the situation, her mother, Séverine being distant and cold and her father, Manuel, acting violently and angrily, simply determined to find out who did this to his daughter, and ‘make them pay’. Along the way, we also meet Céline and Jo’s problematic maternal grandparents and their father’s father, a Spanish immigrant. The family friends, Valérie and Patrick are central to the story, as well as Saïd, a neighbour and childhood friend of the sisters. In Manuel and Patrick’s eyes, Saïd is the prime suspect for Céline’s pregnancy, and for this reason, they hold a vendetta against him that is only fuelled further by their racism. Whilst Céline is not willing to divulge who the father is, she is adamant that it is not Saïd. Throughout the novel, Jo embarks on a friendship with a group belonging to the upper class, these characters are not behind the driving force of the narrative, but they do offer a glimpse into a different lifestyle to that of the main cast of characters, highlighting the striking class differences found in the South of France. As well as exploring class divides, the novel deals with a whole host of other serious issues such as racism, misogyny, immigration and xenophobia to name a few.

To begin the evening Katherine told the group of her experience translating the book. This was her first encounter with Brunet, Summer of Reckoning being the author’s first piece of adult literature. Katherine said she was hooked from the very first page, and that she enjoyed Brunet’s crisp and economical writing. She said that this style, unambiguous and clear cut, allowed for a somewhat straightforward and very enjoyable translation experience. Katherine said that she also fell in love with the location, and having grown up in France, the setting and some of the experiences that the characters encounter resonated with her.

Katherine then went on to discuss the translation of difficult content, explaining that she believes translating offers a sort of ‘cover’, almost a shield that protects the translator from the violence as they don’t experience it as closely as the author did. However, whilst Katherine said that translating the sensitive content wasn’t too difficult, as it never felt gratuitous, she explained that there was a particularly graphic scene that was extremely hard to translate, and that here, she had to take on the extract sentence by sentence, taking breaks in between. Another feature of the book that Katherine said was somewhat tricky to translate was its use of slang. In order to tackle this, she said she would sometimes listen to how the teenagers around her spoke, using this to help her rework the slang into English whilst also being careful not to anglicise too much. This reminded me of something that Edith Grossman has previously said on translation, stating that when she cannot capture the words she needs, she takes a walk in the city and waits for them to ‘slip off the tongue’ of a stranger, a passerby. She ‘hears’ her translation in the voices of the city.

Something else that might have proved difficult whilst rendering the novel into English is the fact that it flits between multiple points of view, however, Katherine said that this feature was, in fact, wonderful to work with. She explained that she loved translating the different voices, finding that as she read the French, she heard an echo: the English voice for each character. Towards the end of the discussion, Katherine also offered a beautiful analogy of the relationship between the source text author and translator, stating that she considers translation to be ‘like ballroom dancing, there is a partner who leads, and a partner who follows. If one is following someone who leads well, someone with clear, strong movements, the dance is easy…’

After a wonderful introduction, we split off into smaller groups to discuss the book in more detail. In our group, we started with a chat about the importance of the text’s location in relation to its central themes of poverty, racism and misogyny. I think that whilst these themes are unfortunately universal, the location is especially important for one in particular: racism. The type of racism we encounter in this book is centred around the idea of immigration and the stereotyping of a specific ethnicity. For this reason, I believe that the novel’s location in the South of France is important, as, whilst the town itself is not located directly on the Mediterranean coast, its presence is imminent, and key to understanding the issues of immigration and racism specific to France. France’s history with ex-colonies found on the opposite shore of the Mediterranean, (notably Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco) is long, very problematic, and still very fresh. This has a strong impact on the type of immigration that France has seen, and still sees, and in turn, has an effect on the forms that racism and xenophobia take on in France. This ignorance is partly thanks to the questionable republican and secularist ideologies concerning France’s diverse population of second and third generation immigrants, ideologies that lead to blurry statistics surrounding immigration, minority communities and religion. This article from The Independent, first published in 2016, explains how France’s policies regarding diversity make minorities invisible and vulnerable: This hostility towards immigrants from countries that France has a violent and extremely problematic colonial history with is reflected in Manuel and Patrick’s horrific treatment of Saïd. It is also reflected in the perhaps more subtle, but just as problematic, ignorance of the other characters (including police officers) that we see within the novel. Whilst these issues are bought to light within the pages of Summer of Reckoning, I do think that they definitely could have been explored in more detail, and I would have liked to see more from Saïd’s point of view. The fact that the story plays out in a small, isolated town, is very important, as the general stereotype here is that a small town is often myopic and has more closed-minded opinions. This is definitely seen with regards to Céline, as the whole town makes assumptions about her situation from afar.

We all agreed that Brunet offers an incredibly realistic representation of what it is like to grow up as a young woman in a small town, interacting with ideas such as misogyny and limited opportunities. Again, I think it definitely would have been interesting to see a reaction to these unfortunately realistic misogynistic views from the perspective of the female characters. Whilst we don’t necessarily see the sisters’ reactions to the misogyny surrounding them, Brunet does offer a rich and accurate portrayal of the dynamics of their relationship, one that is nuanced and quite touching.

To end our conversation, we talked about the crimes that appear within the novel. Whilst there is one very brutal and serious crime that sticks out from the rest, it seems that the central criminal act, the mystery that the rest of the story develops around, is Céline’s pregnancy. Throughout the novel, the reader, along with Céline’s relatives, are left guessing who the father of the baby is. However, it is only in the last few pages that this mystery is solved (though only for the reader). Although many of us guessed very early on in the novel who the father was, others were left surprised by the reveal.

I enjoyed reading Summer of Reckoning, and whilst the story is relatively slow-burning, I finished it very quickly thanks to the novel’s interaction with numerous voices and Brunet’s consise prose. I did enjoy the premise of the novel, however, I would say that I think Brunet attempts to dissect a huge range of issues in such a short book, thus, not giving each enough space for the exploration they deserve.

I am looking forward to the next meeting with Nordisk Books, and can’t wait to read Inlands, written by Elin Willows and translated by Duncan J. Lewis in preparation!

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