There is something gloriously refreshing about the way the French approach their storytelling.
By some act of the gods or simply a gift for prodigiously good and insightful storytelling, authors like Julien Sandrel are able to write unflinchingly about the most heartbreaking of situations, giving it due gravity and respect, while injecting some whimsical inspirationalism into the mix, which adds to rather than subtracts from the serious subject matter at hand.
In his debut novel, The Book of Wonders, originally published in France in March 2018 as La chambre des merveilles, Sandrel excels at this particularly French talent, imbuing this most beautiful of books with a beguiling quirkiness while keeping his eye very firmly on the novel’s grave premise which takes a good, hard look at how the decisions we make in life, and the priorities we choose to concentrate on, affect those around us, particularly the bond between mother and child.
Thelma and Louis are a two-person team, the result of a two-year love affair that ended less than amicably, and yet for all that closeness, Louis is your typical almost-teenager, slow to get moving and ambivalent about the destination, leading to the kind of timetable-adhering friction that any parent with a child will readily recognise.
“The feel of his warm body comforted me. On his face, I was allowed only to stroke his cheeks. I closed my eyes and saw the little dimple that always appeared when he smiled. I cried, a lot – over his hands, in mine. I sang hum lullabies, I hummed his favourite a dozen or so times, the one he still asked for at the age of twelve. The one I’d made up, with my own words. Probably the most tuneless, probably the least pretty lullaby of all. Probably the most beautiful, in his eyes and in mine.” (P. 23)
The novel begins on yet another one of these mornings as Thelma is fruitlessly urging her son to leave his second-home, the bed, and get ready for the monthly lunch with his grandmother, a routine assignation that neither person especially looks forward to but which it is deemed important enough to keep on the calendar since family is everything, right, even if you don’t like them?
A workaholic by choice and by necessity – Thelma works in a highly-misogynistic company, Hégémonie, where she is the marketing director for exotic shampoos at the beck and call of a sociopathic boss who tramples over work/life balance boundaries and basic human propriety with indecent alacrity – she is like so many mothers in the modern workplace, torn between her career and her home, a split which is manifestly unjust.
Thelma is all too painfully aware of this, and loathes a patriarchal system that effectively pressures her to pretend her home life doesn’t exist but continues, thinking she has no choice, but to give it first call on her time, attention and emotional investment until an accident on the way to the lunch with his fractious mother changes the entire course of her and Louis’ life.
In the aftermath of the accident, which Thelma blames on her own inattentiveness as a mother, she reassesses all manner of life priorities, including the way work continually muscles her relationship with her son out of pole position and embarks, armed with her son’s Book of Wonders (a bucket list of things he wants to accomplish in life), sets off to re-invent her life.
Although at the start it is not a conscious decision to be that far-ranging or transformative.
While her initial goal is all-important and big in its own hopefully life-saving way – she dreams that by ticking off each item on the list, including a series of quirky errands in Tokyo and some very teenage boy goals at his school, that she will inspire her comatose son to awake (the idea being he can hear what she’s saying) – it soon becomes so much more.
As she jets off here and there and takes on all kinds of activities she would never have previously thought were worth her time, she discovers how barren, stale and lacking in vitality and nourishing relationships her life had become.
It may sound like a fairly cooker-cutter narrative since how many times have we read the whole trauma-inspires-massive-life-change storyline but thanks to Sandrel’s deft hand with whimsy and the expression of heart felt emotional authenticity, it rings wonderfully, delightfully true.
Here we have a mother, in the midst of the worst time of her life where it is uncertain if her son will wake from his coma or not, daring to push the envelope of expectation and common practice in the hope of changing things for her son only to have her life, and that of a good number of others including her son’s nurse Charlotte and her brother Edgar (hello much overdue love interest), change beyond all recognition.
“That night, my son helped me revive a few too-quickly-turned pages of my youth. That night, I understood that life – true life, which stays in your memory – is nothing other than a succession of moments of freedom. And that no adult ambition can make a person happier than the teenage ability to seize the moment.
We took a taxi back, picked up our luggage and went straight to the airport, still numb from the cold and dazed from the loud music.
Both of us exhausted, but happy.” (P. 162)
Channelling an uplifting carpe diem message and a vibrantly encouraging urge to live each day as if it might be your last – though underpinned always by a desperately fervent hope that it will not be – The Book of Wonders is a joy, a novel that acknowledges that though there is nothing joyful about physical or emotional trauma, which it never treats it as less than understandably serious, hope is never a fool’s errand.
In this case, hope is a muscular endeavour, one that in the process of being lived out by a mother who is willing to do whatever it takes to inspire her son to keep on living, brings not only him but everyone around him alive.
For such an inspirational narrative, The Book of Wonders never once feels twee or overly melodramatic, thanks to Sandrel’s ability to consistently balance gravity and whimsy, grinding reality and the glittering lightness of possibility, what is against what will hopefully be.
It may all feel very magical at times but it also feels very real and true, as much aspirational as it is prosaic, a book which knows how unexpectedly awful life can be but which also refuses to take no for an answer, unleashing the most glorious of life changes that will renew your faith in hope and possibility at a time in human history when both seem to be in perilously short supply.