Mathieu’s writing is deeply concerned with physical appearance. While Anthony is haunted by a droopy eye, the women in particular bear the brunt of the human gaze. We are told a woman’s body is a passport to a better world; Anthony’s mother revels in having once had “the best arse in Heillange. It was a power you were given by luck and couldn’t refuse”. Mathieu’s female characters are haunted by seasonal diets and cellulite like “orange peel”. The fleeting cameo of a social worker is defined by the “alarming proportions” of her thighs.
This is a deeply felt novel, filled with characters that demand the empathy of the reader. It’s not always easy; they can be selfish and too quick to anger. Their actions cause trouble for everyone around them, while they often slip away, waiting for the mess they’ve created to die down. But Mathieu understands this environment and is sympathetic to their struggles. There are no villains in the book but there is a deep sense of humanity in all its flaws. It’s easy to see why And Their Children After Them won so many awards in its native France. It’s an exceptional portrait of youth, ennui and class divide.
If these overlapping layers of cause-and-effect recall the naturalism of Émile Zola, then something in the half-lyrical, half-prophetic tone reminded me of DH Lawrence — who conjured another beloved, change-shaken heartland in The Rainbow. Then again, you might think of a Ken Loach movie with a soundtrack by Bruce Springsteen; especially as William Rodarmor’s salty and supple translation lends to Anthony and his pals the smartass, vulnerable voices of American, not British, rust-belt teens. And Their Children After Them may sound like a tract. It feels, though, more like an elegiac anthem, one drenched in “the terrible sweetness of belonging”.