‘Voice Over’ by Celine Curiol

VoiceOver

Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 288 pages; 2008. Translated from the French by Sam Richard.

Celine Curiol’s debut novel, Voice Over, is one of those books that can best be described as “dense” — it’s closely packed with ideas and is written in a complex style. And despite my initial reservations that the narrative was too slow, too meandering, I grew to very much like this story and the slightly kooky, incredibly naive young woman at the heart of it.

It is set in Paris at an unspecified time, although the lack of mobile telephones suggests it could be any time prior to, say, the late 1990s. The unnamed narrator is the “voice over” woman at Gare du Nord train station, which is sort of ironic given that she is struggling to find a voice of her own.

We don’t know how old she is, nor anything of her family or educational background, but we learn that she has a crush on a friend, who is already attached to a woman called Ange. As the story develops the crush turns into an obsession and because we are only ever presented with her side of the story we never truly learn how the chap feels about her: does he consider her a hapless friend or someone he would consider leaving his current lover for?

Similarly, while we learn that her work colleagues don’t much like her (she hears them talking about her in the staff toilets), we’re never quite sure why she attracts so much unwanted attention from men (except, of course, for the one she really wants): is she strikingly beautiful, or does she simply send out the wrong signals? Much of the book documents her endless string of weird and occasionally disturbing encounters — with men in nightclubs, bars, cafes and parks. Occasionally she finds herself in dangerous situations — locked in a drug dealer’s flat; mistaken for a prostitute by a high-ranking diplomat; running from strangers who want to mug her.

She seems astonishingly passive, unable to say “no” to anyone. This description of her walking through a busy street market seems to sum up her life:

Buying nothing, present in this atmosphere of harangue and transaction, engulfed, borne along by two opposing currents. She allows herself to be pushed along by the movement of the crowd, the sudden eddies, the halts, the momentary gaps. To be there like everyone else, but without a reason, without resisting.

And she’s completely disconnected from the real world in the sense that she works in the travel industry, announcing train arrivals and departures, but has no clue about what lies outside of Paris: she’s never travelled and doesn’t even know what Big Ben is.

How did she get to be like this? Strangely enough there are clues: she refers to a “rite of passage” which, on candid admission to a friend, results in them falling out. Curiol very cleverly scatters these little hints, like breadcrumbs, at semi-regular intervals throughout the narrative, so that there’s a reason to keep turning the pages: what was this incident and when did it occur?

In terms of prose style, Voice Over is complex. As James Urquhart writes in this very perceptive review in The Independent “Curiol deliberately blurs speech and thought in dense slabs of intricate prose to engender the same confusion in the reader as in her cripplingly unconfident protagonist”. This makes it a disorienting read, but once you get your head around it (I found it helped to read the book in large chunks) it’s actually rather mesmirising and hypnotic.

Voice Over was first published in France in 2005. It was shortlisted for the 2009 Independent Foreign Ficton prize.

 

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13 thoughts on “‘Voice Over’ by Celine Curiol

  1. Ah, I keep seeing posts about this book and now I see why–it was your book group’s choice. It sounds really good. It sounds a bit disorienting, but sometimes those make for the most interesting reads!

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  2. Yes, I wonder if all these reviews have helped Curiol’s sales? Hehe. And you’re right: it is a disorientating read. But I found it really rewarding and sometimes its nice to read something completely out of your comfort zone, that makes you think about the book’s structure and pacing etc.

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  3. It certainly generated some good discussion, as we were all a little mystified by the narrator’s motivations etc. Some even drew comparisons to Esther Greenwood, from The Bell Jar, the last book we read, because she seemed so passive and unable to take control of her own life.

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  4. You make the book sound really good! I’m pleased that you enjoyed it, but although I got used to the writing style I didn’t like the meandering nature of the plot. It just seemed to go nowhere and so was a frustraing read for me.
    Thank you for highlighting the Independant review – it is interesting to see the professional review.

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  5. I quiet enjoyed the book. There were times, i wanted to stop reading but there were passages that kept me going.
    I know “she” seems like the main character in bell jar but i guess “she” never had the same feelings and attitudes of Esther.
    she enjoyed some people’s company while Esther almost always hated everyone. she didn’t try to kill herself and i guess if the book were going to continue, in next chapter we might see her with that “oliver tomato man” or who knows maybe the same man!
    she was always behind the glass and stayed there, she never connected with other people. she preferred behind those glasses (or walls!!).
    and about the time thing and lack of mobiles and Internet, i guess she was not after technology, her only means of communication was the announcements she made, she was sort of disconnected from outside world and lived in her own made and just from time to time made a walk outside hers.
    and i believe she was somehow an interesting looking woman. 🙂

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  6. I also heard about this book from Simon and Claire, who have chosen the book for the book group. I’m not sure about the disorienting part but I’ll be interested to see for the style of the book. The meandering plot might suggest that it’s a character-driven book.

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  7. It’s definitely a character driven book although you only get to “know” one very complex, almost elusive character. But I think that’s what makes the book so special – it’s completely different to anything else I’ve read. Though obviously this refreshing take on style won’t be appreciated by all.
    The book was actually chosen by Armen, not Simon or Claire, although they’ve written some fine reviews of it. And as you will see by the other reviews I’ve linked to we all jad different takes on it.

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  8. Great thoughts Kim, I too thought she was complex and at first thought ‘no way am I going to get on with this’ and then ended up thinking it was a really quite great book, looking forward to what Curiol comes up with as her second novel. I am so gutted I missed the face to face discussion and am very sorry about not sending my thoughts, I was on the plane when realised hadnt sended them… sorry!

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  9. I’m really interested in picking this up, based on the description it really sounds like something I’d really connect with.

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