Translated from French by Sarah Ardizzone
Published by Saqi, 2022, 240 pages. Original version published in 2020.
What is it like to uproot yourself from all that is familiar and move to a place that is alien in every way? A different culture, a different language and a different landscape? How do you live in a place that allows you in but does not really accept you?
This is the story of the Taleb family. The book begins when the mother Yamina—the central figure—is seventy. The story moves back and forth between Paris and Yamina’s childhood in Algeria during the French occupation and the independence movement, which her father was part of. After an arranged marriage to Brahim Taleb, the couple move to Paris. They learn to fit in by being “discreet”: not making waves, becoming invisible.
This is particularly true of Yamina, a self-effacing woman whose energies are poured into her family, especially her four children: Malika, Hannah, Imane and Omar.
The children try and navigate the country in their own ways, a country which they are a part of, and yet outsiders. Malika, like her parents, tries to be discreet. Omar, now balding, drives an Uber and watches the world pass him by from his driver’s seat, wondering if this is going to be his life. Imane tries to forge her own path by moving out of the family home, the only one of the four children to do so, much to the dismay of her parents. Hannah is a fighter, not afraid to speak her mind, and her mother’s attitude infuriates her. Yamina has a way of being completely oblivious to slights and rebuffs. But is there more to her attitude than unawareness?
“Which begs the question of whether this is deliberate on Yamina’s part, for she seems unfeasibly deaf to the call of anger. Perhaps she has chosen not to be destroyed by the scorn of others? Perhaps Yamina realised, long ago, that if she reacted to each and every provocation there would be no end to the matter?
“Yamina’s father was a resistance fighter. Over there, in Algeria. What if, today, for this woman approaching seventy, refusing to give in to resentment were, in itself, a form of resistance?”
There are several memorable and telling moments in the book. Malika, who works in a government registry office is dealing with a client, a “stammering old man with worn-out hands and cheap beret, tormented by words that won’t come, by a language that eludes him, despite long years spent roaming this land”. Malika helps him out by speaking to him in Arabic, something she is reprimanded for, although the purpose of the office to help those who come there.
For me, one of the book’s heart-breaking moments is when Yasmina is a child in Algeria. She goes to the Koranic school and becomes a star pupil. She loves her school and is proud of her schoolgirl’s apron. But she is forced to leave so she can help her parents on their farm and raise her younger brothers and sisters. It is a devastating blow, but she holds on to her apron in the hope that one day she will go back. It does not happen, and eventually she gives up.
“One day, she resolved to part with the schoolgirl’s apron she had secretly kept for years at the back of the sideboard. She cut it up to make dusters.”
In those two sentences, Faïza Guène conveys so much: the destruction of a dream, the ending of possibilities, and the heartbreak.
This is a beautifully observed book. Because Guène tells the story from different perspectives, you get a rounded, nuanced picture of what it is like for immigrants, both first and second generations. In Yamina, she has created a woman that, I for one, could recognize from my life: a gentle, loving person who nevertheless has a core of unshakeable strength. A woman who has weathered everything life could throw at her and has come out of it with a refusal to be bitter or angry.
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4 thoughts on “Discretion: Faïza Guène”
Looks like a fascinating read. I’ve just ordered a copy in French. Amazon Prime is So Wonderful for those of us who can’t resist instant gratification. The English translation, unfortunately, is only available from Amazon at the end of May. I hope to read it as well.
But I was wondering how you found the translation? The original French, from the Extract you can view, seems to flow well and quite elegantly.
Literary translation is so tricky.
Thanks for letting me know. ‘Hoping all’s well with you and that you’re enjoying life!
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I would like to read the original at some point but I thought the translation was very good. I have never attempted any serious translation but I imagine that literay translation is tricky.
If you’re asking how I got hold of the translated copy, it was a birthday present from a friend. I’m surprised it’s only available on Amazon in May.
Hope all’s good with you!
Love this . So beautifully reviewed. Pulled me right in. I absolutely love immigrant stories.
Thank you! I think you would like this.