Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Fire in the Blood by Irene Nemirovsky

Chatto & Windus

COUNTRY people have their secrets. So do city folk, of course, but people who have lived in isolated but interconnected farmsteads brood more, and the secrets live on and poison generation after generation.

Irene Nemirovsky, a city girl born and bred - brought up in St Petersburg, then in Nice when her wealthy family fled the Russian Revolution, took shelter in her old nanny's village of Issy l'Évêque when the Nazis came to France.

Before she was shipped away to die in Auschwitz, the best-selling author wrote Suite Francaise, discovered and republished in 2004 to well-deserved acclaim.

Fire in the Blood is set in the same Burgundy countryside, and written at the same time, in 1942, but here we're in old France, before the time the Nazis came.

This is a slow starter, with Nemirovsky's fabulous descriptive prose ripening the story gradually. At first, it's as wholesome as a basket of russet autumn apples.

The story is told by the elderly Sylvestre, seemingly an outsider to all the dramas he watches with such an air of detached cynicism. It's all brilliantly translated by Sandra Smith.

Centre of good - also seemingly - is Helene, Sylvestre's cousin. Centre of bad, then, must be the luscious Brigitte, who has married a wealthy, ill-tempered old man, but is carrying on a quiet affair.

The story, so slow in the first pages, unreels rapidly at the end, and has one of the best, and nastiest, last lines in literature.

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