» Book Review
Review: Girl by Camille Laurens
Translated by Adriana Hunter
Other Press, April, 2022
$17.00, 256 pages
Of all the great engines of fiction, from voice and setting to character and plot, point-of-view is surely the most misunderstood and overlooked. It is the current of fiction, the hidden energy that propels the waves of story crashing to a landed conclusion. Even the terminology is perplexing—for most readers, writers, and thinkers, point-of-view refers to an indication of which character’s eyes see the fictive world or whose movements the action follows. However, that term is perhaps more properly applied to the techniques—broadly, first-, third-, or even second-person—employed to render such a narrative lens, which itself can better be called perspective. Regardless, however, of nomenclature, this force is the most powerful and mysterious in fiction, and untold hours of writing workshops have been given over to deciding on which point-of-view to use for story X or novel Y. The choice is determinative of all that follows in a work, from pathos to plot to, yes, perspective. The workshop will soberly inform the young writer that only one of the three is suitable for use in a single project, a dictum largely followed. It is fitting, then, that in her intrepid and bold Girl, translated from the French by Adriana Hunter, Camille Laurens throws over this rule entirely, employing all three in her depiction of the spectrum of experiences faced by twentieth-century women.
The book is the story of Laurence Barraqué, a young girl born in 1959 Rouen, France, whom we follow from in utero to motherhood, from the opening salvos of second wave feminism through to the “enlightened” 1990s. Along the way, Laurens alternates her point-of-view (while maintaining the single perspective), to tell her heroine’s story in a manner that sweeps far beyond the biographical to reach the socio-cultural, scathingly commenting on gender dynamics and inequalities over the last several decades.
For the majority of the book, Laurens employs the first-person, her protagonist narrating her story in a swift, active voice that dances across the borderlands between interior and exterior with much mechanical grace. As we move through Laurence’s early years and into the heart of the story, it is that skill in first-person point-of-view and comfort in voice that propels Girl forward. The early sections, when Laurence is a young girl beginning to make sense of the world, are filled with the childlike idiom and shrewd observations that come at an early age. Laurens knows how best to use her protagonist’s abilities, and the ironic distance and social commentary achieved via her heroine’s youthful naïveté—here, a belief that girls are made from infant boys who have their genitals cut off—are powerful:
And what are they punished for, these boys made into girls? I can’t answer that, it’s beyond me. I don’t remember ever being a boy, but somewhere deep inside me I’m not surprised. I feel like a boy, sometimes. Not exactly the same, but not different, apart from pink and dresses. They show off, move around a lot, and laugh loudly. But look at me, I can do everything a boy can, apart from pee standing up (and even that . . .). It’s just I don’t want to.
Most especially in the first-person, Laurens is able to capture both the authentic voice of the child and subtly nod toward the absurd nature of society’s distinction over gender and sex. When refracted through the prism of Laurence’s young eyes, the angst and antagonism directed toward women and girls is thrown into full, damning relief.
This strong and essential narration only makes its entry, however, some thirty pages in. Girl begins in the second-person, the first chapter layered richly with wordplay and grammatical pun. It is, rather cleverly, set up as a discursive narrative entity telling Laurence’s story until, around age five, she is able to take over for herself. Inventive as the approach is, it is fair to wonder if the book overthinks itself slightly here. The second-person is a debatable choice; while it does assist in making immediate the inequalities faced by girls from the moment of birth onward, it also is somewhat at odds with Laurens’ desire to position herself in her characters’ inner worlds. Given especially the skill and aptitude of the first-person that comes later, as the book progresses, the choice to narrate it in three points-of-view becomes at times questionable.
One wonders, too, how much of the effectiveness of this opening chapter in the original French, especially in the skillful use of language, was lost in translation—not due to any fault in the work itself, but the vagaries of French versus English. Early on, Laurens draws attention to the fact that the French terms for girl and woman—fille and femme, respectively—are the same as those for daughter and wife, and what that says about societal views on gender roles and worth: “This single word to identify you is a constant reminder of the yoke you bear, you’re always seen in relation to someone else—your parents or your husband—while a man exists in his own right, language itself says so.”
It is an interesting, important point, one ably rendered and deftly employed to underscore the book’s drawing of parallel between quotidian reality and larger societal structure, but one that does not quite land in English. Hunter can only spell out the passage while using the English terms, and to any reader lacking at least an introductory command of French, both the overall coherence of the moment and the finer point will be lost. That is, of course, the nature of translations, and throughout the book one admires Hunter’s skillful diligence in what must have presented a particularly daunting challenge, given Laurens’ penchant for linguistic amusements, while envying her polyglot access to the original.
As Laurence grows into a teenager, Laurens pulls back to a third-person that, while still intimate, makes use of this distance to narrate the strange years of adolescence and key moments of psychological depth. In an especially unsettling scene between pubescent Laurence and her lecherous uncle, the third-person’s composed and incisive voice adroitly handles the moment. The pattern roughly repeats itself across the book, with Laurens relying on the different tools available for varying stretches of her protagonist’s story.
Girl is an arresting and confident work. Laurens pulls precisely zero punches in her narrative, and the risky point-of-view decision largely pays off. Although she seems the most comfortable and adroit in first-person, and her protagonist’s clever voice is a regrettable one to set aside for stretches, the effect is clear. Her employment of three angles of narration, so drastically different yet attuned to the same wavelength, works to build upon and underscore her book’s raison d’être. By exploring the thoughts, feelings, and encounters of a young girl and then a woman from an array of narrative angles, Laurens demonstrates with verisimilitude and originality the female experience in the twentieth century. To a higher degree than would be possible with a single lens, Laurence comes to represent the stories of countless women, a character transformed, via narrative triangulation of perspective, into an archetype of literary representation. Ultimately, with its inventive narration and unabashed content, Girl is an admirably courageous work, on both the story and sentence levels, one that mines experience for verisimilar pathos and relies on skill for technical innovation.