A child walks into an abandoned house in the woods along with a dog no one else can see. He sits down at the wooden table, cups his chin, and looks around at the objects and furniture surrounding him, which were once useful and now stand strange and still. He thinks of the hands that once touched this teacup or that drawer. He calls the single room his Kingdom. The emptiness and the silence of the room—the way everything is asleep—reminds him of his grandmother’s stories. Except here there is no princess to wake up from the spell and the child himself is no prince: he is “too small,” and comes not of castles and fine silks but “of bramble and dust.”
Jeanne Benameur’s newly translated novel The Child Who belongs to a trend in contemporary literature that reimagines the fable to sometimes more feminist ends—as in the work of Angela Carter, Anne Serre, or Marie NDiaye. But while Carter and Serre are famous for upending the tropes of the fairy tale to return them to their darkly sexual origins, Benameur appears more interested in its ties to psychoanalysis, specifically in relation to loss and grief. Along with exile, these themes are constants throughout Benameur’s oeuvre. Born in Algeria to an Algerian father and an Italian mother, the family relocated to France when Benameur was five because of the war for independence. She inherited from this exile “une mémoire à trous” (or “a punctured memory”) and her novels, plays, essays, and poetry often track the movements the mind takes to make sense of such gaps.
The Child Who begins like many Grimm stories and Disney movies, with the death of a parent setting the child on a journey. Except that in Benameur’s novel, the father and grandmother also begin a new journey after the mother’s death. The mother was a nomadic woman the father met at a market far away. She didn’t speak their language and was never accepted by the village, so she “choked back her anger” and those words were “like birds of unimaginable plumage beating against her closed teeth.” She may have died, or she may have abandoned her family, and there is a question here if there’s much difference between the two—at least for those left behind. The father shouts and slams doors. He works as a carpenter, and like everyone else in their village, “his days are ordered and there’s just enough room left for a person to ask whether they’ll visit the Café in the evening or whether they’ll go straight home.” The grandmother, meanwhile, knows to make meals from nothing and has “learned to drive anything she cannot solve out of her head.”
These three nameless characters walk a different path surrounding their nameless village. (The era, too, would be indeterminate were it not for the briefest mention of a lorry.) They encounter rushing rivers, evil men, and dark woods through which hunters sometimes pass; yet their journey is largely interior, as each character grapples with loss, trauma, and grief. Benameur twists the classic fable structure on its head. Even the hunter takes no action against the strange sound he hears in the woods—the child singing in his mother’s tongue—but the memory sometimes renders him sleepless. Daydreams and reminiscence texture this fable-like novel.
As the characters move along their path, they begin to question the presence of the mother’s absence. She “left anger” in the body of the father, while the boy remembers the fabric of her skirts and the amber color of her skin. The grandmother cooks the woman’s sweet and tart dishes to show the child that she hasn’t forgotten his mother. A person disappears, and those left behind only retain the memory of a fabric, a flavor, and unprocessed feelings.
As the father and the child grow to accept the mother’s disappearance, imagination becomes central to their relationship with her. “We know,” Benameur writes “that we will never see her again but that we shall be able to imagine her.” The deceased loved one is no longer there in person, but becomes present elsewhere. The characters will “be able to let her face come back, summoned by any other thing. The colour of the sky will enable it, or the curve of a hip in a painting.” For the father “imagination keeps the madness at bay,” while what the boy imagines is “as true as reality.”French critics often notice the lyricism of Benameur’s work, and in The Child Who it’s at its strongest in descriptions of nature. The boy encounters morning “still wrapped in the milky shadow of light. Outside it looks as though the brightness were fraying, whereas in fact it’s taking shape.” In other places, there is a tension between the lyrical meaning behind the otherwise clipped language (“The nothingness asks for space. The place that had been empty. In this way living takes on a different form inside us. Out of respect for the nothingness. It has to be so.”) which can lead the intended emotion to fall flat. Nonetheless, The Child Who builds a haunting portrait of the way people navigate loss. The three characters orbit the gravitational force of the woman’s death or use it as a beginning to a new trajectory. After all, even the title of this book contains a silence asking to be filled.
by Jeanne Benameur, translated from French by Bill Johnston
Published May 03, 2022