ONE TO WATCH OUT FOR: Soft in the Head by Marie-Sabine Roger

Article published on March 24, 2016.

What is it about Pushkin Press? Over the last couple of years I’ve read about half a dozen of their titles – far more than any other publisher – not least because they have all been attractively presented and appealed to my interests. Better, still, I can’t think of one of them that was a let down which is a pretty impressive achievement given some of the dross published these days.

And so it is with my latest: Soft in the Head by Marie-Sabine Roger. Originally published in French back in 2008, Frank Wynne’s translation is highly readable while retaining a certain French-ness that enhances the proposition. Germain is 45 and at peace with being ‘soft in the head’; the butt of his mates’ jokes that he sometimes still doesn’t understand. Except along comes Margueritte and the opening paragraph just drags you in and makes you sit down:

“I’ve decided to adopt Margueritte. She’ll be eighty-six any day now so there seemed no point in putting it off. Old people have a tendency to die.”

In an easy conversational style, littered with his life philosophy and how he’s arrived at this point, Germain tells how he regularly goes to the park to feed the pigeons and check their number is stable. Except, this particular day a little old lady is sitting on his bench and Germain concludes another day would be better as strangers always unsettle the birds. Except Margueritte doesn’t. All that happens is that, after a short while, she says, ‘Nineteen.’ And when he asks if she’s talking to him, she adds that there’s a new addition to the flock and away the two of them go, in a dialogue neither had anticipated.

Books and language become their common ground, which is surprising because Germain can hardly read and has had no use for books for 45 years. No matter, Ms Roger deftly allows Margueritte to introduce him to, well, The Plague by Albert Camus. Carefully choosing the bits she reads out loud means Germain starts to understand an author I have always struggled with. And so his much delayed education begins. Plenty of books have focused on characters who have overcome disadvantage to achieve their life goals but few have done it with such a light touch. Germain is a big bloke but you can feel his inner being unfolding like a butterfly out of a cocoon.

I have to add at this point that I’m not a soft touch with books; now films with music from the 60s and I’m gone, lump in the throat, eyelids blinking rapidly. But not with books except with this one I was way too close to that feeling. At just over 200 pages in very short chapters (always a good idea) this could easily be designated YA but I hope Pushkin don’t go that route – it’s just too good to miss for adult readers. And it turns out there is a film already: My Afternoons with Margueritte starred Gerard Depardieu back in 2010 which I’m obviously going to have to get hold of!

Highly recommended.

Guy Pringle

March 2016

Soft in the Head by Marie-Sabine Roger
Pushkin Press pbk June 2016

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