What we get here is a no-frills pot-boiler of 124 pages, stylishly translated from Jonquet’s original French and therefore probably well-written in the first instance. However, as I do not read French, and so obviously have not read the original novel, I am competent only in addressing my remarks to Donald Nicholson-Smith’s translation, so here goes…
The novel’s principal characters are Richard Lafargue, a prominent Parisian plastic-surgeon and his partner Eve, whom he keeps confined to her bedroom, and whom he forces to perform various sexual acts with various men while he watches through a one-way mirror. Richard’s daughter, Vivianne, is in a mental institution. A parallel sub-plot involves Alex Barny, a redneck brute whose best friend, Vincent Moreau, disappeared four years ago. Until recently, Alex made his way in the world by bouncing outside nightclubs, mugging and armed robbery. Then he took a step up the career-ladder by shooting a cop dead during a bank-job. He’s sitting on four million francs, but he has to get out of the country.
The book begins brilliantly. On page 4, we get the early portrait of Lafargue, the ultimate power-junkie monster:
Back in the main drawing room on the ground floor, he fixed himself a scotch at a bar set up near the fireplace and downed it in one swallow. The spirit burned his stomach and tic-like movements worked in his face. Going over to the interphone connected to Eve’s rooms, he pressed the button, then cleared his throat before pressing his mouth against the plastic mouthpiece and bellowing:
“For God’s sake, hurry up, you piece of shit!”
I laughed hard when I read that – it reminds you of something out of a Hammer-movie. This novel definitely works as black-comedy, at least for a while. Later on, Alex’s spectacular stupidity is also good for a laugh. The text includes many instances of fine writing and strikes a very impressive balance between the elemental plot devices, the gradual unveiling of the characters, and the relationship between the two. There is a very strong sense of the internal logic of Lafargue’s relationship with Eve in the narrative’s grasp of physicality:
With Roger at the wheel, the Mercedes left the house in Le Vésinet and headed for Saint Germain. Richard observed Eve, indolent beside him. She was smoking nonchalantly, bringing her ivory cigarette holder to her elegant lips at regular intervals. The lights of the city penetrated the car’s interior in intermittent flashes, streaking her black silk sheath dress with fugitive flashes of brilliance.
Eve held her head way back, and Richard glimpsed her face only when her cigarette glowed briefly red.
It’s cinematic, like one of those perfect noir moments. Ultimately, however, the novel is caught between several different stools. It can explore Richard’s sadism, but would do so at the expense of humanising him. That, of itself, is not a bad thing, but remember that this is a pot-boiler. It’s not supposed to be a meditation on despair, loss, hatred and forgiveness. That would be another novel. Not necessarily a worse novel, just not this one. Jonquet’s next option might be to keep the high-octane suspense going to the last page, but in the context of this story, to reveal everything in the end would be just corny. Jonquet tries to engineer a compromise between the two – the story is definitely plot-driven, and for the most part, the narrative is lean and mean. On the other hand, the narrative doesn’t try too hard to lead the reader up blind alleys – ultimately, the riddle to the puzzle can be guessed by about page 40. What’s more, it’s possible to guess the broad outline of what’s going to happen next – we know that Richard has to change in some way. Otherwise, he would very quickly stop being interesting. Jonquet is caught in too many double-binds with regard to what he wants the plot to achieve here. It is the only aspect of the novel which is unsatisfactory. Of course, the Aristotelians among us would argue that a pedestrian plot will kill a story, especially a plot-driven euro-thriller, but for me this novel is still worth it for the general quality of the writing – economical, purposeful, but still poetically evocative. Very, very tidy work. All in all, worthwhile entertainment.
Tarantula by Thierry Jonquet is published by Serpent’s Tail publishing.