BookBrowse Reviews By a Slow River by Phillipe Claudel

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By a Slow River

by Phillipe Claudel

By a Slow River by Phillipe Claudel X
By a Slow River by Phillipe Claudel
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2006, 208 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2007, 208 pages

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Psychologically complex, elegantly written and tightly plotted, this is far from your average policier.

From the book jacket: As the First World War rages on, the daily life of a small town near the front is hardly disturbed by the report of artillery fire and the parade of wounded in its streets. But within the space of a year, this illusion of ordinary days is shattered by the deaths of three innocents—a charming schoolmistress from "the north," who captured every male heart only to take her own life without apparent reason; an angelic eight-year-old girl, who is strangled, her body abandoned by the canal; and the cherished wife of the local policeman, who dies in labor while her husband is hunting the little girl's murderer.

Twenty years on, the policeman still struggles to make sense of these mysteries that both torment and sustain him. In the pages of his notebooks he continually—desperately, obsessively—summons up the past and its ghosts. But excavating the town's secret history will bring neither peace to him nor justice to the wicked. And as his solitary detective work continues on these long-closed cases, we come to see that his efforts can lead only to an unimaginable widening of the tragedy.

Comment: By A Slow River was originally published in France as Les Ames Grises (and was published under that title in England in 2005, The Grey Souls).   Although a few people die in mysterious circumstances this is not your typical Anglo-Saxon murder mystery with all loose ends neatly tied, but something considerably more Gallic in temperament.  The narrator, Dadais, formerly the local policeman of the town of "V", exudes a sense of overriding mental weariness as, with the clarity of the passing years, he looks back on the events that took place in the town during WWI, and painstakingly pieces together the connections that link them. 

In the wrong hands By A Slow River could be considered a boring read (I can just imagine the student comments if a well-meaning high-school teacher was to set it as a required text), because it meanders slowly like the river of the title.  However, a mature, patient reader will be rewarded by a gem of a book, both tragic and compelling, that explores the morality of crime and punishment, and the effects of war.

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in August 2006, and has been updated for the June 2007 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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