Faces on the Tip of My Tongue by Emmanuelle Pagano (translated from the French by Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis, Booker International Prize 2020): a collection of interrelated stories exquisitely told.

This is a spellbinding web of stories about people on the periphery. Pagano makes rural France her subject matter, invoking the closeness of a local community and the links between the inhabitants’ lives, but then she reminds us how little we know of each other.

~Peirene Press on Faces on The Tip of My Tongue

I think the best way to ‘review’ this collection of stories, translated from the French, is to put what struck me as the most meaningful bits under each chapter’s title. As you read them, perhaps common threads uniting them will be revealed, perhaps not. Regardless, the power of Pagano’s writing is, I think, evident:

The Lake’s Favorite:

I was the lake’s favorite.

I loved my life by the lake so much that it was worth going away for awhile, if only for the pleasure of coming back.

The Jigsaw Puzzle:

We were just wondering how to tell our daughter, when she came down into the kitchen. She flew to the door with a joy that left us speechless. Her little hand fumbled at the handle; I had to help her turn it. For her, the fallen tree was no more dead than before, it was simply transformed into a tree house.

The Short Cut:

She lied herself a comfortable life, forgetting her childhood fears, but they returned once the children were grown up, they came back, they’d always been there most likely…

She suffered from the heaviness of a body that feels like lead when you don’t want to live any more.

Blind Spots:

Lots of people go about with blinkers, not just on the motorways. They’re not really driving their lives. I mean, not leading their lives. Instead of leading their own lives, they let themselves be carried along in their restricted view of things. Social conventions, appearances, all those things, you know, all those things that shrink your field of vision. Our vision. We don’t see anything else, nothing of what’s at the edges.

The Loony and the Bright Spark:

The man was one of those people who ‘haven’t their peace’. That’s how we describe them around here, our loonies. He worked at the social enterprise down in the town. He lost his peace by the side of the road one evening at about five o’clock when his wife and children were killed on the bend going down, more than forty years ago…

This tormented waiting that we can’t comprehend, this disaster, it’s him, it’s what’s inside his head, it’s the whole of him that we thought we knew but that goes beyond our knowledge. He goes beyond the figure we made of him that we thought we could reduce him to.

Mum at the Park:

When she was young, she didn’t play the same sorts of games as we did. She daydreamed among the trees, did jigsaw puzzles without getting bored, spent lots of time drawing and already read a lot…

Mom used to say that silence doesn’t exist, that there are always tiny sounds in the background, muted and barely perceptible. And she was an expert in barely perceptible things. Her whole childhood was made up of them.

The Automatic Tour Guide:

My little sister’s death doesn’t need inventing, and when he tells it to the people staying in the gîte he doesn’t embellish it with local color. He delivers it straight, raw, hardly like a story at all…

My sister rain off towards the tractor but I didn’t, I knew we weren’t allowed, and I told her not to but she didn’t listen, that two-year-old silly. Father came out again almost straight away, still cross, went back to the filed and got on the tractor. He started it up again, and when he heard me screaming louder and higher than the sound of the engine, when he felt the tiller jam, he was really beside himself, absolutely furious this time.

Just a Dad:

My dad knew just what to do, what to say and what not to say, everything the therapist would never understand.

Three Press-ups and Unable to Die:

I’ve had more than enough of myself, I must get rid of this self. I’m leaving me. Other people provide no refuge: they mass together instead of lightening my load, they lay their own armour upon my already overburdened carcass and their touch is heavy. Other people are an excess weight, my children especially. I can’t do it any longer, can’t carry anyone, anything more.

The Dropout:

You’d seen my face somewhere and here it was now in front of you, in front of you and elsewhere in an elusive memory, my recognized but unrecognized face, my face on the tip of your tongue. You smiled as if to thank me.

Glitter:

For a book to change us, to cleanse us, it must get deep inside, and those pink books, as I’ve told them hundreds of times stay on the surface. They reach only the outer layers of our skin, our thoughts and memories. They smooth over worries with illusory balm, like the anti-wrinkle creams that my friends spread on their faces…I’m alive and I read real books. Not dead books that simply submit to being read.

About the author: Emmanuelle Pagano was born in Rodez, France, in 1969. Her books have been translated into more than a dozen languages and she has won many awards for her work, including the EU Prize for Literature in 2009 and, most recently, the Prix du Roman d’Écologie in 2018. This is her second book to appear in English. The first, Trysting, was published in 2016 by And Other Stories.

About the translators: Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis translated Pagano’s previous collection, Trysting, to much acclaim. Individually, Higgins has translated numerous books from French and Italian, and Lewis’s translations have been shortlisted for the Scott oncrieff Prize and the Republic of Consciousness Prize.

(Thanks to Peirene Press for their willingness to send me this copy to review.)

Find an excellent review from Reading in Bed.

6 thoughts on “Faces on the Tip of My Tongue by Emmanuelle Pagano (translated from the French by Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis, Booker International Prize 2020): a collection of interrelated stories exquisitely told.”

    1. I love how you reviewed this book, too! It’s so great to read one another’s interpretation and insight into a book, much as Tom and I shared woth The Memory Police earlier.

      Like

    1. What I especially liked is how the stories connect; I am not a huge short story fan, but when they flow together with a common theme or characters, it feels more likea novel to me. This collection is quite poignant.

      Like

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