This Strange Eventful History by Claire Messud - review by Stevie Davies

Stevie Davies

No Direction Home

This Strange Eventful History

By

Fleet 448pp £20
 

The Greeks called it epipothia oikou. In French it is mal du pays, in Arabic hawa, in German Heimweh. To suffer homesickness is to be human. Claire Messud’s profound and exacting new novel is an epic involving several generations of a diasporic family on a volatile earth – a fictionalised version, as the prologue tells us, of her own family’s wanderings, an attempt at the imaginative retrieval of beloved persons and memories lost in the ruins of time. 

This Strange Eventful History covers seventy years over the course of its seven parts, but not as an evolving block of time. The narrative is more a kind of migratory flight, touching down at moments when members of the family are embroiled in public history and in their own private agonies. The point of departure is June 1940, as Paris falls to the Germans. Gaston Cassar, French naval attaché in Salonica, Greece, sends his wife, Lucienne, and their children, François and Denise, to French Algeria for their safety. For Gaston, suddenly adrift in an alien world, ‘everything from this moment forward was uncertain: when or even whether they would be reunited; where or how a reunion might take place; what might lie in store for them and the children.’ This sense of uncertainty – fragile humanity cast to the winds – underpins the novel. Subject to the imperatives of politics, religion, family bondings, professional ambition and the double-bound search for belonging and freedom, three generations of Cassars move between America, Cuba, Canada, Argentina, Australia, France, Switzerland, Britain. 

Messud’s anatomy of exile recalls Stefan Chwin’s novel Death in Danzig, in which Poles occupy the homes of exiled East Prussians, Hisham Matar’s My Friends, about a Libyan in London, and W G Sebald’s Austerlitz – works written in the wake of catastrophic displacements. The earth seems to shift,

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