BookBrowse Reviews Marguerite by Marina Kemp

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Marguerite

by Marina Kemp

Marguerite by Marina Kemp X
Marguerite by Marina Kemp
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2020, 368 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 6, 2022, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Callum McLaughlin
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In her impressively nuanced debut novel, Marina Kemp explores the destructive pain of guilt, the search for redemption, and the deceptively fine lines between life and death, and love and hate.

Marguerite Demers arrives in Saint Sulpice, a sleepy farming village in the south of France, to commence her role as Jerome Lanvier's live-in nurse. Once the most powerful and revered man in town, an elderly Jerome now languishes in his large, secluded home, embittered by his fall from grace. The surrounding community is not used to outsiders, and Marguerite's arrival disturbs the balance in a way that will force long-suppressed tensions to rise to the fore. But she is guarding secrets of her own; her cool and professional demeanor masking years' worth of sorrow.

Though the novel appears to be set in the early 2000s, the atmosphere and setting are such that it often feels as though the action is taking place much further in the past. This is effective on two fronts. Firstly, it allows Kemp to pay homage in subtle ways to the classics of gothic fiction. Secondly, it serves as a successful reminder that small rural communities like Saint Sulpice often lag behind the times when it comes to the progression of liberal social views – hence why everyone is so keen to guard their secrets, lest they be judged and ostracized.

From the beginning, Kemp weaves many motifs from the gothic canon into the narrative — be it the young heroine taking up residence in a new home; the house itself, once beautiful but going to ruin; the tyrannical, enigmatic owner; or the decidedly unwelcoming neighbors, ruled by scandal and gossip. She builds from here to show that no character or situation can be defined as any one thing, however, highlighting the complexities that underpin our lives. It's not long before we see the loneliness and fear that fuel Jerome's cruelty; the anguish and self-loathing felt by the handsome local farmer who appears to have it all; the insecurities of the local busybody; and the vengeful streak that lurks within the one seemingly friendly neighbor. This theme of duality and contradiction reaches a crescendo when Marguerite's own secrets are finally unveiled, with Kemp asking the reader to ponder the difficult moral questions that come into play when we near the end of our lives. This idea is touched upon in Marguerite's response to Jerome's advancing frailty, as Kemp captures the visceral indignity and emotional turmoil inherent to old age and a loss of independence, but we're also confronted with this theme through the revelation of Marguerite's past.

It's in the latter section that the book hits its only real stumbling block, with one of the characters becoming something of a mouthpiece for the author's views regarding the limitations placed on palliative care. With the rest of the book handled so deftly, one particular exchange dissecting the ethical gray area between life and death feels needlessly heavy-handed. It's also true that the book indulges in a couple of less successful genre tropes in its final moments. Though it could certainly be argued that these were intended to enhance the book's well-established gothic undertones and sense of inevitable tragedy, a more subversive outcome may have proven stronger.

That said, the prose remains assured throughout, with particular praise owed to the sharp dialogue. Kemp has a knack for human observation, perfectly capturing the fraught mood between each of the multifaceted characters as they seek to unburden themselves of their hidden pain while maintaining their standing within the community. Through the gradual unraveling of the tangled web that ensnares them all, we see that no one can ever truly be free while they continue to suffer beneath the weight of the past.

Reviewed by Callum McLaughlin

This review is from the Marguerite. It first ran in the April 22, 2020 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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