Low Heights by Pascal Garnier

Review published on October 29, 2017.

The beautiful image of the almost bleached white vulture on the cover portends disaster, a closer look shows that the talons are set to strike at some unsuspecting prey just out of shot. In the novel the vultures circle, tragedy strikes, and murder is committed, but you will laugh out loud at the wit of Low Heights. It is another extraordinary novel from Garnier.

I couldn’t help thinking of that famous cosmetic brand when I first heard of this writer, but Pascal Garnier is more like poison than perfume. I love his novels for their startling originality and wacky stories of reprobate pensioners that ultimately have a humane logic. Everything from the slightly mysterious titles (Low Heights/The Panda Theory/The Eskimo Solution) to the poetic insights into human nature sizzles with a kind of dark fun. If you are looking for something a bit different then this book fits the bill. Low Heights is noir and there is a crime at the heart of the novel, but that is too simplistic a classification for a novel that is an extraordinary survey of old age, loss of memory, the need for companionship and illness. Garnier’s style is very French, truly a descendent of Simenon, but he stretches the absurd to new limits, plays more openly with very dark humour and dissects character with gusto. Like fellow crime writer Fred Vargas, Garnier’s ploughs his own furrow; he is unique.

One of the things that makes Garnier so interesting is his leading characters, generally they are pensioners behaving very badly indeed. Crime can be a young persons’ game populated with very uniform characters, action heroes and villains, but not so here. Garnier celebrates characters that not only do not fade away but exhibit traits we don’t like to recognise in the old, some never calm down, and some have murderous intent. So there aren’t many pyrotechnics in Low Heights but if the picnic in the sun lulls you into thinking things are peacefully rambling along you have another think coming.

Low Heights is Garnier’s tenth novel published in English and the tenth I’ve read; sadly, there is a finite supply because Garnier died in 2010. For now I’m enjoying the after glow of this novel. I know I will miss my annual Garnier fix.

Garnier like Simenon writes short sharp novels with clean unadorned prose and cleverly crafted plots. There are surreal twists that prevent the reader getting ahead of the story or second guessing what people will do. That absurdist element makes reading Garnier an adventure.

Low Heights is the story of Édouard Lavenant (irascible and cantankerous) and his long suffering carer, Thérèse (middle aged but still in her shell). Thérèse’s loyalty to Édouard is admirable because nothing is ever quite right for the old man. For Édouard, the suggestion of a picnic on a sunny day is stupid, Thérèse’s hat is ridiculous, the shopkeepers are crooks, the tourists annoying – you get the picture. Yet there is also a bond between the two that the reader can sense. The relationship is changing, the two of them appear to need each other, they are getting closer. Just as they become lovers a young man turns up. Jean-Baptiste claims to be Édouard’s son. He insinuates himself into the home, as he reveals more about himself things go horribly wrong. That is only the start of things, as Édouard and Thérèse go on a road trip. There is no way of guessing what is going to happen at this point and that is part of the great enjoyment of this read.

Édouard Lavenant is curmudgeonly and badly behaved yet the reader can’t help but feel empathy and sympathy for him, he has lost his wife, had a stroke and he is losing his memory. A kind of admiration for the lovers grows out of sympathy. Then they meet an old school friend of Édouard’s one night and by morning the world has changed.

There are lots of serious points about ageing and losing faculties, about the reliability of memory and what is truly in the heart of another person that are as profound as any literary novel. Low Heights has a genuine emotional intelligence.

Low Heights is hilariously funny, perceptive of human motivations and needs, and delightfully mischievous and dark. There are scenes that will stay with you a long time. This novel was a joy to read and at 186 pages a long afternoon will suffice.

Paul Burke 5/3

Low Heights by Pascal Garnier
Gallic Books 9781910477427 pbk Aug 2017

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