Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Last Life by Claire Messud

This is a coming-of-age tale about 15 year-old Sagesse LaBasse, who lives in the south of France with her French father and American mother.  Her father’s family lived in Algeria during the French occupation and would love to be there still if they hadn’t been forced out.  Her grandmother laments:

"Every morning, I wake up and look out my window at the Mediterranean sea, vast and creeping, and I smell the pines and the heat on the breeze, rising up the cliff top, and I'm in Algiers again. I live, still, in my heart, in Algeria."

Her grandparents run a hotel and dominate her parents.  Sagesse (along with her parents) are searching for their own identity. One night her grandfather shoots a rifle at a group of noisy teenagers in the hotel pool.  No one is seriously injured, but this incident puts the family’s livelihood at risk and long-simmering resentments come to the surface.  Sagesse finds herself quite alone and friendless. 

The story is a bit meandering but it kept me reading.  Ms. Messud forte is in her prose.  She is a beautiful wordsmith.  Here she witnesses the market:

"There were vegetable men and fruit women and stalls selling both, blushing mounds of peaches alongside plump and purple eggplants...pale, splayed organs of fennel pressing their ridged tubes and feathered ends up against the sugar-speckled, wrinkled carcasses of North African dates...the fishmongers sold their bullet-eyed, silver-skinned, slippery catch, blood-streaked fillets and orbed, scored steaks, milky scallops and encrusted oysters...."

And here, a painting of the Bay of Algiers:

"its apron of azure sea, erratically white-capped, broken by the sandstone finger of the port...the white rise of the city, a thousand precise terraces and roofs climbing into the sunlit sky, the European curlicues and the higgledy-piggledy casbah, all their outlines drawn as if with a single hair, interspersed with delicate little palms and cypresses and other trees of variegated greens, and with broad, brown avenues like branches."
Here is a partial list of some new words I learned from the book: panoply (wide-ranging, impressive array); chevelure (head of hair); intransigence (inflexibility); polyphonous (different sounds from the same letter or group of letters); limn (to portray in words or drawing).

It is a story where I would stop and re-read paragraphs just for the beauty of it.  All in all, if you like a book that will push your vocabulary and will make you think, give it a try.  If you want an easy read this is not the one.

4 stars – actually I would give it 3 stars for plot, but 5 for beauty of language, so I average that out to 4  (rated PG-13 for sex talk and adult situations)

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