This is the best book I have ever read about a woman sitting at her dining room table and teaching another woman to read.
The protagonist is Édith, a French woman living in Paris. She works from home as a literary translator. She has a husband and children who never appear in the novel and are rarely mentioned. One day, an acquaintance – Aïcha – who works in Édith’s neighborhood knocks on Édith’s door to ask if Édith will hire Aïcha’s mother to do some occasional housekeeping. Aïcha’s mother, Fadila, is about sixty years old. She spent her childhood and young adulthood in Morocco but has been living in Paris for some time. All of her adult children are in Paris as well. Fadila speaks passable French (rendered in translation as broken English) but has never learned to read or write in any language. Édith admits that she tends to let her ironing pile up (as I’m sure I would too, if I ever ironed anything) and hires Fadila once a week to help with ironing and other chores.
I don’t have a lot of formal training as a teacher, but I do understand the concept of critical periods. Just about any skill set that human beings can learn is best suited to a particular stage in brain development. Highly nuanced skill sets, such as speaking a language with native-quality fluency, require immersive training early in life, while the acquisition of facts is suited to the child and adolescent brain and skill sets that require practice, patience, and creativity are best learned in mid-adulthood. In addition, the older we get, relevance becomes more and more important to the learning process. A child can memorize lists of facts just for the heck of it; adults need a clear awareness of how the subject matter is directly relevant to their lives.
Édith learns early in her acquaintance with Fadila that Fadila cannot read or write and has sometimes suffered as a result – in the sense that she is unaware of important rules and regulations or vulnerable to being tricked. Édith offers to teach her to read and write and does some basic research on how best to do so. She starts by teaching Fadila how to write her own first name. Every day – except on days when Fadila announces that she is too busy – they practice printing the six letters in Fadila’s first name. It becomes clear, though, that even the concept of letters is foreign to Fadila, as is the basic skill of holding a pencil. Fadila can’t recognize the fact that the A at the end of her first name is the same as the A at the beginning of her last name, Amrani.
And this is how the novel progresses. There is absolutely no action. Every day, we wonder whether Fadila will recognize her name (and, as time progresses, the names of her children and a few other key words). Will she have practiced at home as Édith asked? Sometimes she does, and sometimes she doesn’t. Édith despairs of having ever taken Fadila on as a student – though even this despair is fairly lightweight – and starts looking around for languages courses Fadila can take at night. Fadila does enroll in a couple of classes, but she always drops out early on and returns to her classes with Édith. Over time, Fadila tells Édith her life story, which is marked by ignorance and victimhood and being unloved. She bemoans her children’s neglectful ways. And then she tries again to spell her children’s names, and cannot.
This novel succeeds to a much greater degree than one would expect, given its simple internal plot. I never felt frustrated or wanted to stop reading. It helps, of course, that the novel is less than two hundred pages long, and it also helps, of course, that Fadila is an extremely well-drawn and compelling character. Another novelist might have taken this same premise and written a more encyclopedic story, delving deeply into Édith’s family life, career, and past, the present-day lives of Fadila’s grown children, the French colonial presence in North Africa, French immigration policies, social services for the poor in Paris, and so forth. This novel drops hints in all of these directions at times, but only with a word here and a sentence there. We are asked to see the beauty and simplicity in the relationship between two different women engaged in the simple (and also painfully complex) process of breaking down the written word to its component letters. This novel succeeds in the way that many poems succeed: because it is so apparent how much has been deliberately, judiciously left out.
At the same time, this is not a great novel. Édith is almost entirely opaque as a protagonist. With the exception of the two times she becomes frustrated with her own failure to help Fadila make progress, we really never see the inside of her head. Does she like being a literary translator? Has she always lived in Paris? What is her marriage like? What was her childhood like? What kind of relationship does she have with her parents and her own children? We don’t know. We just know that she is a literary translator who doesn’t like to iron. There is some beauty in such stark characterization, I guess, but in general I like my protagonists more rounded and fleshed out.
And one more thing: this novel ends with a death – an out-of-nowhere death that I found meaningless. It reminded me of the equally out-of-nowhere death that ends another recent French novel, Muriel Barbury’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which was translated by the same person (Alison Anderson) as Bitter Almonds (I am mentioning this as a coincidence – I am not suggesting that the translator somehow engineered the endings of the two novels). Novels can end with deaths, of course, although in general I think I prefer novels that begin with deaths or that feature deaths at key moments in the middle. In my relatively limited real-life experience with death, the most salient feature of this life-event is how NOT final it is. When a human being dies, the intensity of life is ratcheted up for everyone in this person’s life. The world keeps spinning by, and its beauty is exacerbated by grief. For this reason, I want to see characters react to deaths. Having a character die suddenly at the end of a book certainly reflects the reality that human beings do sometimes die suddenly, but for the purpose of the book’s plot it feels like a waste of a perfectly good character. I think novelists should let their characters survive their novels – OR kill them off early and let their deaths impact the lives of others.
I can see this book being an interesting topic of discussion in an undergraduate or graduate course in fiction writing – with the goal of examining just how internal a plot can be and still succeed. I might even use it that way myself someday. I recognize the author’s skill and even, on some level, her courage in writing a book that is so extremely character driven. As far as recommending it to others, I’m neutral. If this review has intrigued you, then by all means pick up a copy and read it, but I’m not going to ascend into a pulpit for this one. Maybe next time, for I do enjoy ascending into pulpits.