The Book of Nights

Written by Sylvie Germain
Review by Myfanwy Cook

Originally published in France in 1985, this novel maps the lives of the “freshwater” Peniel family over a hundred years and appears to focus on “inhumanity”, resulting from three French wars, and culminating in the almost total obliteration of the Peniel family. It also highlights the devastation that war can cause to a family, which results in Theodore’s ‘madness’ and the mutilation of a member of his own family.

This is a novel which might appeal to readers of literary fiction and poetry. It is brim-full of death, hopelessness and brutality. Its merits include the descriptions in the opening chapters of the countryside, and the way of life that the first Peniels lived as bargemen on the Mercy of God. The style of writing has echoes of Zola’s classic Germinal, but the plot isn’t as powerful and lacks realism.

Unfortunately, I found the novel too ponderous, especially the rather melodramatic “Night-of-Gold-Wolf-Face” scenes, and also the characterisation was too superficial for my taste. One felt that the characters were not people, but simply ideas dressed up in human clothing. The only character that felt real for me was Vitalie Peniel, the mother of seven children, only one of whom survived.

This is a novel of ‘ideas’, which undoubtedly has been beautifully translated, but in my opinion is definitely not a page-turner.