by Claudie Gallay
La Hague is a desolate, storm swept village almost surrounded by sea on the most northerly tip of Normandy's Cotentin coastline. This book is a story about the village, and it is of today, but set in ancient and timeless surroundings.
The story begins as the sky over the village darkens with storm clouds. A lonely woman in her late thirtys sits at a table in the auberge with her coffee. She has sought shelter after her walk along the cliffs: she is employed by the Centre ornithologique at Caen to study the behaviour and habits of migratory and nesting sea birds As the storm rolls across the sea towards La Hague, a stranger comes to sit at another table, and she sees him again during the following days.
The villagers become suspicious; they have secrets and hatreds and resent a visitor, especially as he seems to have sectets of his own. A madwoman thinks she recognises him, and touches his face with an almost biblical gesture, and the old lighthouse keeper is obviously nervous about him.
Diffidently, and with many false starts, the villagers discover more about him: he owns the house, empty for many years, which stands opposite Lili's place, where the seamen like to gather together; and he himself is looking for answers. At sight of him the old men stop their talk and their card game, and Lili's ancient mother, deaf and almost blind, wants to know what's going on. No one can tell her, and it is the taciturn woman birdwatcher who tries to unravel the mystery. There are questions about a lost family, a lost child, an old love affair, and an accident at sea. Soon she realises that there is a tragedy that lies at the heart of the community, and an unforgotten feud.
The story does not bowl along but keeps pace with the sea-going and reticent people of La Hague. The narrative is compelling and evocative of its time and place, and it holds its readers attention like a magnet. It is a tale of loss and love and atonement, but also about human warmth and family affection. In fact the storm is the harbinger of unexpected kindness and constancy. There is predestination and also redemption, and above all the story is original. It will not let you go.
Claudie Gallay is a teacher who lives in Provence. THE BREAKERS is a best seller in France.
Published by Maclehose Press, 416pp.