Les Âmes Grises (Grey Souls)

Written by Hoyt Rogers (trans.) Philippe Claudel
Review by Douglas Kemp

France, December 1917, in the midst of the Great War and a harsh winter. In an unidentified town just behind the front line, a young girl is murdered. She is the youngest daughter of the local innkeeper, and her ethereal beauty had given her the name of Belle-du-Jour, or Morning Glory. The sorry tale is narrated by an unnamed policeman, who is called to the crime scene. The narrator then, in ad hoc fashion, tells the story of another death which may be related to that of the young girl – this one of the local schoolteacher, who took her own life back in August 1915. Both deaths are linked to Destinat, the town prosecutor and the owner of the small chateau, in the grounds of which the deaths occurred. Destinat is a reclusive widower, grieving for the death of his young wife many years ago. And the narrator too, is also a widower, also trapped in the bereavement for his young wife, Clémence, who died in childbirth.

The story is very much a sober meditation upon death, the anguish caused by the loss of loved ones, and the random nature of human experience. Our narrator looks back upon his life, and the events are described in blunt and occasionally crude language, but overlaid with a deep sense of sadness and weariness at life. There is rather a nasty shock towards the end, as well as some disclosure about the deaths and reasons behind them. This is a short, but emotionally powerful story, one that is also beautifully observed.