Real Life by Adeline Dieudonné (“…one must learn to accept the unacceptable.”)

What happens when we are confronted with a terror so deep that our very world tilts? Some, perhaps, become a blob of jelly, amoeba-like, such as the narrator’s mother. Others, like her brother, Sam, turn the terror into a predator.

These two beautiful children, brother and sister, hear “Flower Waltz” by Tchaikovsky, and know that the ice cream man’s truck is coming. The brother orders vanilla and strawberry; his sister orders chocolate and stracciatella in a cone with whipped cream, and while I am contemplating the joy of that, I am utterly unprepared for what happens next.

For the siphon from which the whipped cream is dispensed explodes. Right in the ice-cream man’s face. It is totally obliterated, as the children look on in disbelief, and then he crumples to the ground.

This incident happens on page twenty-five of a book with two hundred and thirty-four pages. It is a horrific accident, setting the stage for the novel with an impact in keeping with their father’s violence. He is a hunter of animals, and a terror to his wife and children.

I had noticed that when my father started to become edgy, she (my mother) served red meat, as if she hoped that the bloody flesh would calm his rage. But I knew that blood wouldn’t calm him. He had to penetrate living flesh, be it with his fist or a .22 caliber bullet. (p. 111)

Our narrator hears a hyena’s laugh, as if it is real, and knows that vermin are eating her brother Sam’s brain. For surely, if they weren’t, he would not torture the neighborhood’s cats. Or, their mother’s beloved goat, Cumin, whom is so lovingly cared for in their garden.

What can this girl, bravely struggling to grow up, do? She determines that she will build a machine to go back in time, to erase the occurrence of tragedy that has come into their life. And she actually believes, with an eight year old’s faith, that this is possible. Until she learns of Marie Curie, and decides that science is the solution to solving Sam’s problem with violence.

To that extent, she excels in school, and she begins taking private tutoring lessons with Professor Pavlovic, a man from Tel Aviv whose wife wears a mask. It is literally a mask which hides her face, for her story is also one of incredible strength and courage. Her husband lovingly, and tenderly, cares for her in their home.

I can’t imagine what it would be like to grow up with a father so cruel, with a mother so passive, with circumstances so horrific. Yet, it is a lovely thing to see courage grow strong in a wound. Adeline Dieudonné brings her heroine to life in this coming of age novel. We see the child grow to a young woman and embark on a new life, a real life which has overcome adversity and discovered hope.

Real Life by Adeline Dieudonne, translated from the French by Roland Glasser, was published in the U.S. on February 4, 2020. I am grateful to World Editions for the opportunity to participate on the blog tour listed above.

About the author: Adeline Dieudonné is a Belgian author and lives in Brussels. Real Life, her debut novel, was published in France in Autumn 2018 and has since been awarded most of the major French literary prizes: the prestigious Prix du Roman FNAC, the Prix Rossel, the Prix Renaudot des Lycéens, the Prix Goncourt—Le Choix de la Belgique, the Prix de Étoiles du Parisien, the Prix Premiere Plume, and the Prix Filigrane, a French prize for a work of high literary quality with wide appeal. Dieudonné also performs as a stand-up comedian. (Back cover)

About the translator: Roland Glasser was born in London, studied in Aberystwyth, and lived in Paris for a decade, pursuing twin careers in translation and the performing arts. His translation of Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83 won the Etisalat Prize for Literature 2016 and was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize and the Best Translated Book Award. Authors he has translated include Anne Cuneo, Martin Page, Marc Pouyet, Julien Aranda, and Stéphanie Garner. Roland is a co-founder of The Starling Bureau – a London-based collective of literary translators.