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2008 Books in Translation

Voice Over – Celine Curiol

Translated from the French by Sam Richard

Voice Over was the latest choice for our book group, but while there was a lot to discuss, it wasn’t an enjoyable read for me.

The central character in the book is an unnamed woman who announces the train times at the Gare du Nord in Paris. The main theme appears to be her struggle to be noticed:

Her voice fills the entire station, soaring over the platforms, the halls, sailing into corners, crashing into glass walls. She is present everywhere, and yet no one recognises her.

She lacks self esteem, and so, in an effort to bring meaning to her life, she ends up in a series of difficult situations.

I felt little empathy for the woman; she seemed to bring all the misery on her self, and the majority of her problems could easily have been avoided with a little forethought. Despite the subject matter of the book, there is very little emotion. I felt distanced from the characters and so never connected with them.

The writing style makes this a difficult book to read. There is no speech and little to break up the writing, so you are often confronted with an entire page of words, which means a great deal of concentration is required. With effort, some insightful passages could be discovered:

Whenever she is in a park, she is always faced with the same dilemma. All those orderly paths overwhelm her. A park should be explored instinctively, without markers. But the walkways impose their fixed itineraries and lead to artificial crossings, which force one to choose different sections of the park over others. The only way to get to know the place is to follow the layout of paths, to explore them all without exceptions. At each fork, however, one of the paths has to be abandoned and might never be found again.

The pace of the book is slow and rambling. It is only 200 pages long, but feels twice that length. I would not have finished this book had I not been reading it for the book group. There are a lot of people who will love this book though – literary fiction fans will enjoy analysing the many layers contained in this book and, due to the number of things left unresolved, it makes a great discussion point.

Overall, I found this to be a skillfully written debut novel, but the lack of a strong plot meant it wasn’t for me.

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28 replies on “Voice Over – Celine Curiol”

Diane, It wasn’t too bad. I managed to finish it and we did have a good discussion about it. Hopefully I’ll find the next book more enjoyable though.

I guess the premise sounds interesting, but this need for intense concentration might sideline me. I have a very hard time with that lately, there is so much going on. It is almost like a book needs to grab me by the throat and physically threaten me to get my attention these days! I have actually just joined a book group and will be attending the first meeting in a couple of weeks (still haven’t read the book yet…need to get going!). I’m excited.

Sandy, I don’t mind books which require concentration, but I do like to be rewarded with a great plot, which I’m afraid this book didn’t have.
I hope you enjoy your book club. I hope it is as good as our one has turnded out to be.

Claire, I admit I considered giving it two stars, but I did finish it and it generated a good discussion, so I let it scrape three!

“the majority of her problems could easily have been avoided with a little forethought” I really hate that – it’s one of the things that really alienates you as a reader. It’s something that happens in soaps a lot – making characetrs act daftly for the sake of “plot” – it’s lzy writing, and the fact you pick up on it shows the writer hasn’t created enough of a coherent and engaging world to take your mind off it (which is that real trick).

That said, the premise is wonderful. Reminds me of the film The Double Life of Veronique, when the protag is sent a tape recording of an announcement at the Gare du Nord. I think I’ll seek it out and read it on the basis of that, and will be interested to see how our opinions vary.

The passage you quote does sound as though it somewhat hammers the reader over the head, I have to say.

Dan, I’m not sure it is poor writing – there are a lot of stupid people out there in the world, but I just don’t like reading about them!

If you do decide to read it then I look forward to finding out what you think.

I think I’ve had it with books that go nowhere . . . I have to be in just the right the mood. I’ll flip through this at the library before making a decision, but I don’t think I’ll be picking it up anytime soon.

Dorte, I haven’t read many French books, but have to admit that I haven’t liked any of them yet either. I’m hoping Elegance of the Hedgehog changes all that.

After my bad experience with “The Theory of Clouds” earlier this year, I am wary of contemporary French literature… The snippets you posted are really quite lovely, but I wonder if I would find them tiresome after a prolonged period. I feel like I value good writing highly, but at the same time, I do like/need something of a plot when I read, I think.
I hope you do enjoy Elegance of the Hedgehog. I haven’t read it myself, but it doesn’t really sound like the kind of novel that would be a good fit for me. I look forward to your review!

Steph, I haven’t read Theory of Clouds, so don’t know if this follows a similar writing style or not, but it does seem as though we share similar taste in books. I’ll try to read Elegance of the Hedgehog soon, and let you know if I enjoy it.

I like the quotes you have chosen, especially the one about the paths. It was quite obvious our unnamed narrator didn’t have a clue about which path to take in her real life…

It’s funny how different people respond to the same book. I’ve come to the conclusion that this was a damn fine novel: it was literary without being pretentious and presented what seemd to be a very authentic account of what it is like to be an outsider without resorting to stereotypes and cliches. I thought it was a quirky read but I enjoyed getting inside that woman’s head even though I didn’t much understand her motivations.

kimbofo, I like the way that we all respond differently. I know what you mean about it being literary without being pretentious. I can see why you’d love it, but it was just a bit too rambling for me, with no real conclusion.

I look forward to comparing thoughts on the next book.

Well, I read a fairly good review from one of the other book group members and was intrigued, now I’m not so sure.

It sounds a lot like Looking For Mr. Goodbar to me.

I actually have enjoyed the French stuff I’ve read in translation lately. Try The Butterfly and the Bell Jar.

cbjames, I’ve not heard of Looking for Mr. Goodbar, so don’t know if this is similar or not. I have a copy of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly here. I’ll try to read it sometime soon. Thanks for the recommendation!

Annabel, Blindness is one of my favourite books, so I can get used to densly packed text. The problem was that the plot was too meandering for me to be able to focus on the words. Blindness has such a strong, compelling plot that I was able to forget about the lack of speech marks. Let me know if you do enjoy this one though!

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