What would you do?
You’re a journalist, idling in a Parisian cafe, when a stranger asks you if you’re waiting for Monsieur Bellivier. Only the man doesn’t appear to be Monsieur Bellivier himself. And he doesn’t seem to know who he’s looking for.
Fortunately for the sake of the story, Helena Folasadu says that she is. And from there, she’s drawn into a mysterious second job that involves sitting in an enormous empty office at the top of a busy commercial block, forwarding on inexplicable emails containing random combinations of letters and numbers.
Meanwhile, in another district of the city, Mancebo, a Tunisian shopkeeper finds his predictable routine-driven life turned slowly upside down when the woman across the street – the enigmatic Madame Cat – convinces him to moonlight as a private detective in order to find out whether her novel-writing husband is having an affair.
Britta Rostlund’s twisting, turning tale, moves back and forth between Helena and Mancebo’s stories until they inevitably overlap at the end. There are plenty of hooks and unexplained events to keep you turning the pages, but as the stories unfold, the revelations about Mancebo and Helena’s own lives are just as absorbing. Their involvement in the clandestine affairs of others has the effect of sharpening focus on their own day-to-day concerns. They become at once more observant, more derailed and more willing to push at the boundaries of the routines into which they have settled.
Rostlund’s narrative, with its topical mood of paranoia, also reminds the reader at intervals that the story is set in a post-9/11 Paris. Here suspicion is the natural order and fear is a constant undercurrent. In this sense, Mancebo and Helena mirror society at large in that almost everything they do is overlaid with anxiety and all unexplained events are suspicious. It’s an interesting way of commenting on shifts in our collective consciousness that are at risk of becoming embedded in the status quo.
However, there’s a fair bit of humour and I enjoyed the window Rostlund opened on parts of Paris that aren’t so well represented in fiction.
It’s also a story that reminds you how easy it is to see only the littlest bit of the world around you, or to become so overtaken by routine that it subsumes the detail of life.
I really enjoyed the premise of this book and once the preliminary lines had been cast I was well and truly hooked. The characterisation – of Mancebo and his family in particular; Helena could perhaps have done with a little more flesh on her bones – was strong and the dual narratives meant that you were never more than a few pages away from a cliffhanger. If I had one criticism, it was perhaps that the ending didn’t come with the ‘oomph’ that I was expecting. But I wonder if that says more about the strength of the build-up. I think this is perhaps one of those stories where the majority of the pleasure is in the anticipation, the puzzling over which of a dozen intriguing denouements you could possibly be escalating towards. I’d certainly recommend it at any rate.