Writing a work of fiction in the form of an autobiography or a memoir means that the author can stretch the shape in original ways. So Sagesse LaBasse, the narrator protagonist of Claire Messud's highly accomplished second novel, not only informs us of her perceptions, inner life and surroundings, but also fills us in, very much like the traditional omniscient narrator, on the past history of her family as well. Purporting to have gained her knowledge from tales repeated by her parents and grandparents, Sagesse (remember Françoise Sagan's Bonjour Tristesse? – here's a descendant) pieces together several faintly shaming and shabby episodes from the 1950s onwards. In the process, she discovers her true ancestry, grows up and comes of age.
The novel's physical and psychological landscapes make it distinctive, and linger in the memory. We're in pied noir territory, characterised emotionally by a mixture of nostalgia and snobbery, inside a high-bourgeois family who've fled Algeria at the approach of independence to run a hotel on the coast of the South