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.