The first question I asked my book group was: which has a greater affect on the characters in this book: murder or war?
Considering it is December, 1917, and the rumblings of war can be heard everyday in the small unnamed French village that is the setting for this novel, the answer would seem obvious. This town has suffered through a unique conundrum. While their men were spared the horrors of the trenches because of their value in the factories that are producing the machinery of war, the town itself is overrun on a daily basis with wounded soldiers. Now, not unlike the two armed camps that face each other across the barbed wire, the wounded heckle the healthy and the healthy abhor the wounded.
What has developed is a dichotomy of interests. This is shown in no greater fashion than in the nature of the local prosecutor, Pierre-Ange Destinat, who argues for the death of criminals in the courtroom and goes home each night to mourn the wife he has lost to illness.
So when the body of a 10-year-old girl is found strangled on along the river that dissects the town, how should the local constabulary react when a slightly unreliable witness points her finger at the esteemed prosecutor? If it were up to the unnamed narrator of this novel, the sad policeman who tries valiantly to pursue justice a few miles from the worst injustice of all, he would enter the manor house of the prosecutor and question the man. For him, it becomes The Case.
But these are strange times. The local judge, who rules the village like a fiefdom, in allegiance with a military presence, decides to do nothing with this evidence. Instead, with hawk-like precision, the judge and colonel descend on the least likely suspect with a torturer’s glee.
Not to be overlooked in the morass of damaged morality is the jump back in time the narrator takes to tell us of the fate of the local school mistress who teach during the war. But of even great significance is the narrator’s own personal history that he teases us with throughout the book and then delivers like the last shell to land on Armistice Day at the end of this tale.
In France this novel was published as Les Âmes Grises. When published in England, it was re-titled The Grey Souls while Americans got By a Slow River. I have no idea how much this book owes to its English translator, Hoyt Rogers, but as it stand here it is beautifully written. Claudell introduces multiple characters, major and minor, each with a dense history display for the reader to the point where it feels like you have lived in this village for years. So, for language, plot, characters, and sense of place this novel is a rich read that should appeal to all book discussion groups.
In 2005 Claudell won the Prix Renaudot award and Sweden’s Martin Beck Award for Les Âmes Grises. The novel was adapted for film by Epithete Films in 2005 but there does not appear to be an American release available for viewing. The author’s website is available in French at http://www.philippeclaudel.com.