Celebrate International Women’s Day with These 4 French Novelists

As we get ready to celebrate International Women’s Day, we invite you to discover some of the female French authors whose books have contributed to changing French society by pushing it to open up to those debates that are currently shaking up the planet, as well as to modernize itself.

Of course, there are the seismic books by Vanessa Springora (Consent: A memoir, HarperCollins) and Camille Kouchner (La Familia Grande, Seuil)–which have not only been the two most discussed books of the moment but have also redefined the way in which France defines the sexual abuse of minors, ultimately resulting in their greater protection by the law.

At the heart of both of these books is the issue of manipulative influence, and more precisely that exercised by a figure who embodies authority over the authors. The powerful novels written by women at the height of their talents that we are suggesting you read this week refine this issue in different ways and tones, evoking and exploring through memory (Annie Ernaux, Vanessa Springora) or fiction (Julia Kerninon, Adeline Dieudonné) the obscure mechanisms of predation and violence, and the tacit silence that surrounds them, while tracing out escape routes in words that announce that progress is possible.

Reading List

A Girl's Story by Annie Ernaux

Annie Ernaux has made her life the material of a literary oeuvre of exceptional importance, a body of work that reflects the historical path of French society–from advances in sociology (Bourdieu) to the slow progress in women’s rights. Ernaux is above all a writer concerned with memory–of its flow, its functioning, its weaknesses. In A Girl’s Story, she revisits a repressed memory that is of particular significance since it prefigures in meaning her work to come. A memory that focuses on the question of consent and its corollary–sway.

In the summer of 1958, Annie Ernaux is a counsellor at a camp in Normandy. One of the other counsellors desires her and they spend a night together. Once the desire has passed and the lover has left, the author realizes that she has submitted to his desire rather than examining her own. The consequences of this were long and heavy with depression and bulimic/anorexic episodes emerging later on.

In an interview to the NYT Ernaux said, “because it was so complex. Had it been a rape, I might have been able to talk about it earlier, but I never thought about it that way.” 

As Ernaux investigates the oft-mocked territories of sexual consent at a time preexisting its concept, she unearths the trauma at the origin of her writing life, “built out of shame, violence and betrayal”. We can only be grateful that she manages to turn her own memories into a collective one with such grace and power.

A Girl’s Story, Annie Ernaux, trans. by Alyson L.Strayer, Seven Stories Press

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Consent: A Memoir by Vanessa Springora

A literary event, Consent : A Memoir has prompted the second feminist wave in France. Its publication was nothing short of a Molotov cocktail being launched at the French literary milieu. Vanessa Springora exposes– through her own experience of being seduced and abused at age 14 by the then 50-year-old author Gabriel Matzneff–how deeply tolerant and complicit French cultural elites have been towards pedophilia.

Even though you may feel like you already know what this book has to say, we strongly encourage you to read it since describes so acutely and powerfully the very nature of abuse. More than an open condemnation against a sexual abuser, Consent: A Memoir is also the portrait of a young girl whose absentee father has made her so desperate for male validation and love that it has turned her into the perfect prey for a sexual predator.

Springora writes with a natural and remarkable simplicity that operates in sharp contrast to the violence of what she describes; and the distress of this adolescent when confronted with checked-out adults makes the shamefulness of the perpetrated crimes all the more flagrant.

Consent: A Memoir has prompted a necessary conversation. More than a poignant memoir, it is an invaluable step forward that has helped us recognize and expose something that has long remained hidden or ignored; and most of all, it makes us realize that we, as a community and as a society, have a collective responsibility for this issue–and as such, a duty to speak out against it.

Consent: A Memoir by Vanessa Springora, trans by Natasha Lehrer, HarperCollins
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My Devotion by Julia Kerninon

We have already shared our thoughts on the English debut of Julia Kerninon, this highly addictive story about a woman confronting the choices she has made for herself, her brilliant academic career, the nature of her relationship with Frank, and the origins of her total devotion to him. Click here if you’d like to refresh your memory.

What compels us to add this novel to this reading list one more time? A brilliant review of the book by Matthew John Phillips published in Full Stop Magazine. Phillips analyses brilliantly not only the state of devastation in which the heroine finds herself, but also–and of much more interest– Kerninon’s focus on the disappointments of erotic life. Phillips presents Kerninon as a legitimate heir to Thomas Hardy, and establishes a spot-on parallel between other chroniclers of generation Z’s love life like Sally Rooney or Brandon Taylor.

My Devotion, a novel by Julia Kerninon, translated by Alison Anderson, Europa Editions
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Real Life by Adeline Dieudonné

The first-person unnamed narrator and her little brother learn early on that you only have two options when facing trauma: either you shape the narrative or let the narrative shape you..

Behind the facade of a game hunter, the father is a powerful sadist and abuser. The mother has removed herself from all responsibility and embraced the status of her husband’s scapegoat.

Concerned by her little brother who is seeming to develop resemblances to both their highly dysfunctional parents, our narrator becomes determined to change the definition of “real life”, and it will take all her resilience to achieve this.

A lyrical and unputdownable thriller about domestic violence.

Real Life by Adeline Dieudonné, trans. by Roland Glasser, World editions Ltd
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After almost two decades of working in publishing, and a few round trips between Paris and New York, Miriam has decided to settle down at Albertine to do what she enjoys most: recommending books she loves. Somehow this also includes taking bizarre pictures for Albertine's social media outlets.
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