Nothing But Motorway
Bleak. Honest. Raw. Powerful. I have dozens of adjectives spinning through my head as I close the cover of Pascal Garnier’s novel The A26, place it down on the table beside me, lean back, breathe for what feels like the first time in ages, and sink deep into the couch in my living room. For the past ninety minutes or so I’ve felt trapped in darkness, lost in a damaged world where insanity reigns supreme and hope is nothing more than a cruel, nonexistent joke. I’m not exactly frightened by what I’ve just read, that’s not the right word, but do feel slightly unsettled. Am I sweating a little bit? Fuck. I am. The A26 has left me feeling a bit dazed, a bit off balance, and truth by told, a touch sickened. This a good thing though for it signals that ultimately the author has accomplished his desired effect. Point to Garnier. Consider my outer defenses not just breached, but utterly destroyed.
The story takes place in the early 1990s right around the time that construction has begun on the 222 mile long A26 motorway connecting the towns of Calais and Troyes in the northern part of France. Work on this modern convenience provides a backdrop for a tale of damaged siblings who live together in a dilapidated house along the new route. At first it’s the sister, Yolande, that appears to be the most broken. She’s stuck in the past, unable to move beyond tragic, life altering events that occurred back in the mid 1940s. The true extent of what happened to her is revealed as the story progresses, but think flirtatious young French girl mingling with Boches during the Second World War and you’ll be well on your way down the treacherous path to disaster.
Now considerably older, Yolande never leaves the house for anything, ever, and hasn’t for a fair number of years. She views the outside world through a peephole she’s dubbed “the world’s arsehole” and has grown to rely solely on her brother Bernard to tend to any and all external worldly matters. She spends her days scurrying about the house chasing down rats, sowing random scraps of fabric and loose buttons together, and boiling bizarre dinners comprised of fatty meats and chunks of bone. Bernard’s no saint for staying and caring for his mentally unstable sister however. In fact, if anything, the two come together to form the perfect pair from Hell.
On the surface Bernard seems like a pretty decent guy. He’s nearing the retirement age for his job working at the French national railway. He’s a good friend to his former girlfriend, a woman who moved on and married someone else after it became apparent that caring for his sister was Bernard’s number one priority, and for all intents and purposes he appears to be a pretty well adjusted human being. That is, until he’s diagnosed with terminal cancer. From that point forward the cracks in his persona begin to show. He begins to change. He becomes increasingly prone to acts of violence. Even though she’s clearly not all there herself, Yolande can sense these changes within her brother, even if she’s not very sympathetic to his plight:
Let him get on and die, and that would be an end to it. She didn’t know what he wanted, to be sure. He could always hang himself if it was taking too long. People were always like that, complaining about their lives: it was ‘it’s too hot’ and ‘it’s too cold’, ‘I’m too young’, ‘I’m too old’, etc. They only had to be as she was and not like anything, that way you were never disappointed and other people got a bit of peace as well. She had nothing against her brother, mind you. All their lives the two of them had been like one and the same person, but whether you lost a tooth, a brother or an arm, there was no need to go overboard about it!
As the novel progresses Bernard’s anger over his impending death, his inability to come to terms with his diagnosis, and the resentment he harbors towards his sister, a woman he gave up every shot of happiness he had to care for, is downright palpable. As the twisted tale behind the true nature of the siblings’ youthful entanglements is revealed to the fullest extent during flashback sequences, in the present day Bernard begins brutally murdering woman and dumping their lifeless bodies in construction ditches at random sites along the path of the A26. Foxholes. Trenches. Construction. Destruction. War. Sex. The stories begin to blur as the past and the present race at high speed towards a stunning head on collision with one another.
I’m not sure how the original text reads, but Melanie Florence’s translation of it is possessed of the devastating ability to immediately crawl under your skin, knock you on your ass, and demand you pay it the attention it deserves. You want to look away from what’s occurring at times, but your brain will not let your eyes be deterred from moving ever forward. Yolande and Bernard are both presented as spectacularly flawed human beings, but the tendencies toward evil they possesses are delicately balanced with a wickedly black sense of humor and an all too familiar sense of self-rationalization.
I went into this one knowing of the name Pascal Garnier, but not knowing much about the person. Reading the author bio and doing a quick Google search revealed the typically expected information, but one tidbit did stand out: “……” Children’s author? What. The. Shit.
My young twins better behave or their next bedtime story is going to one they’ll never forget. EVER.