Sunday, April 2, 2017

Her Father's Daughter - Marie Sizun

Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter.

One of the many things I'd like to tell my much younger self would have been to read more European fiction. I remember reading, some time in my twenties, that the British were really poor at reading books in translation, and also remember feeling somewhat vindicated by that - I wasn't the only one. I  struggled with French at school and dropped it at the first possible opportunity. French, or Italian, would have helped with my degree in History of Art, and wouldn't have gone amis in the wine trade. Wine labels have probably taught me as much French as school did, they've also taught me that things stick better if you're interested in them.

What simply didn't come my way at school (with the exception of Anne Frank's Diary, and the Moomins) was literature that threw any light on any European culture or experience at all. Nor did I see any foreign language films. I can't help but wonder how many others had the same experience, and if the same us and them mentality would be so widespread if we were all generally better read.

'Her Father's Daughter' is the sort of subtle family drama that even my younger self might have appreciated. It's set in Paris as the war is drawing to a close, a young child has a happy, and remarkably undisciplined, life with her mother in their one bedroom flat - the only cloud from her point of view is a disapproving grandmother. The father she has never met is about to return from the prison camp he's been in though, and when he comes back family dynamics are obviously going to change.

Change they do, it's not just that there's a new person in a small space, or that the focus of her mother's attention has shifted, but also that her fathers war time experiences have left him with an uncertain temper, and as unused to small children as his daughter is to his authority.

Almost inevitably the relationship that builds between father and daughter is at the expense of the relationship between mother and daughter. That the mother has a secret which is also, inevitably, going to be revealed by the child, makes things altogether more complicated. She doesn't understand exactly what it is that she's revealing, and because it's told from her point of view, we can't be quite sure either - at least not of all the implications, but the repercussions are in no doubt.

So far so good, but what had me reaching for the tissues by the end of the book was the matter of fact description of what the relationship between father and daughter becomes when he moves on from his first family. There's nothing unusual or dramatic about it, but it's still quietly devastating and gives the book a tremendous emotional punch. It's a book I could get really evangelical about.


  1. Thank you - from what you say, I expect I too could get really evangelical about Her Father's Daughter: 'quietly devastating' is what attracts me in your review. Like you, I wish I had read more European literature when I was young (apart from the inevitable teenage fascination with Camus' The Outsider!) but was lucky enough to combine Italian with History of Art at Edinburgh and discovered Pirandello - a lasting influence ...

  2. I found Camus, and Sartre, in my early twenties... I could wish we'd had some languages taught to us at primary school - I found starting at the same age that I began to get really self conscious was not helpful, it made me worry far to much about saying things wrong, that and I got bogged down in the grammar and totally lost. My school days were before publishers like Pushkin and Peirene, so maybe things are better now.

    Her Father's Daughter is possibly my favourite Peirene book (so far), and more generally a book that really felt like it came from the heart and shared something fundamental about the experience of broken and reformed families. It certainly got under my skin.