The Confidant by Hélène Grémillon, translated by Alison Anderson, is a first novel that is a bestseller in France, an intriguing and atmospheric story about maternal instinct and identity, manipulation and conflict. Its epigraph is from The Premonition by Federico García Lorca: 'The past wears its armoured breastplate and blocks its ears with the wind's cotton wool. No one will ever be able to tear its secret away', and it's the past which, for the main character, will now inform and explain the present, as will be seen.
The book begins in Paris in 1975 with Camille Werner reading the many letters of condolence she has received after the death of her mother. Reflecting on the fact that up to this point she had had little mail of any consequence, certainly nothing of the life-changing variety that she might idly have hoped for, Camille is puzzled to notice that one of these missives is unsigned and refers to people she does not know; she dismisses it as a mistake. But similar letters then arrive every Tuesday, and taken together they seem to tell the story of lives changed and loves lost during the Second World War and the German occupation of Paris.
Camille is an editor at a publishing house and as she is drawn in by this tale told weekly she begins to suspect that it is a clever ruse by a writer, someone sending her chapters of their book aiming to get her attention, for what she is reading is a gripping, unsettling account of passion and obsession - but then comes the realisation that the story is not fictitious but true, and that the life-changing moment she had anticipated has actually arrived.
The narrative moves back and forth between characters' viewpoints and the two time periods (the '70s and '30s/'40s), so by its very nature it is arrhythmic and fragmented, but still with sufficient coherence and a well-controlled building of suspense to hold the reader and keep them turning the pages. It's intricately plotted and at times relies perhaps too heavily on coincidence or contrivance, and the pull to the dramatic is strong, but I'd say that the odd 'rough edge' there is to Hélène Grémillon's style will be smoothed and polished as her work progresses because the promise is clearly there; in a book which relies on detail and necessary obfuscation, all the clues are carefully hidden and there's considerable satisfaction when the dénouement finally comes.