Connemara by Nicolas Mathieu
As she’s nearing 40, Hélène has moved back, with husband and kids, to the North East of France, to a designer house with a view of Nancy, a few hours away from the small town where she grew up. Impatient to leave her narrow, provincial life, she escaped for Paris as soon as she graduated from high school. A brilliant and hard working student, Hélène enrolled in a prestigious business school and then worked her way up through a consulting firm until burnout halted her Parisian career, and sent her back East to Nancy.
Despite having checked all the boxes that define success, Hélène is angry, and the novel opens with her recriminations that will sound familiar to any woman whose importance is systematically undermined at work like it is at home. Hélène is unhappy in her marriage, and her family life hangs by a thread. She finds relief and pleasure in her affair with Christophe, an old flame from her high school days.
Contrary to Hélène, Christophe has never left their small town. His dreams of becoming a professional Hockey player have vanished, just like his marriage. His ex-wife is about to move to another part of France, cutting his child custody to two weekends a month and every other holiday. Despite the imminent separation from his son – and the trauma that will not fail to ensue– Christophe goes on with his day, to the familiar rhythms of hockey practices, looking after his ailing father, and happy hours with his friends that stretch far into the night.
With his usual dexterity, Nicolas Mathieu slips into the wounds of Hélène and Christophe, revealing all the micro-accidents that pile up and darken their horizons. Scenes of their teenage years flow through the narrative, and underscore how life has failed their past hopes and aspirations. Connemara is a painfully accurate account of what the passing of time does to our dreams, to our loves, to us. As in Chekhov’s plays, the past works within the present, and the dramas in the worlds of Hélène and Christophe are not brought to a point of resolution, they just pass, and life goes on.
Just like in Leurs Enfants après eux, Nicolas Mathieu shows a perfect ear for all occasions: internal monologues, Hélène’s diary, conversations within the work space. Mathieu is fluent in all our tongues – intimate, social, professional or familial. That may be why his novels can speak so straight to our hearts.
Connemara, a novel by Nicolas Mathieu, published by Actes Sud.
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