Through their tacit understanding of each other’s pain, Henri and Marguerite are exalted over the other characters. Their inevitable liaison amounts to a romanticization of trauma as something that confers humane knowledge. But when every other character is thrown under the bus, it is Marguerite’s liberal values that emerge as this novel’s true hero. The terms through which Nightingale expresses her sacrifices as a carer are those of humanistic learning: “What other friends had deduced from Camus she had learnt first-hand”. Marguerite’s privilege is her innate humanity, which Kemp equates uncritically with liberal education. The result is a novel that, instead of affirming the dignity of care workers, affirms the dignity of the privileged.
Gradually — but not so slowly that the story loses momentum — we learn the woman’s secrets, as the narrative switches between Marguerite and Henri, a beautiful but intellectually and sexually unfulfilled farmer, one of the few villagers to be kind to the Parisian. While it contains plenty of sadness, this novel never feels dreary. Kemp has a playful turn of phrase — a head of lettuce is described as “splayed open so generously she could have worn it as a bonnet”. We get vivid pictures of her characters, too, who are far more complex than we are led to expect.
Kemp opens in the off-season, when the land is “winter-bitten”, building slowly towards summer’s taut midpoint, its evenings filled with cicada song. The texture of her setting is loosely sketched: olive trees are “silver-green”, the forest’s live oaks and wild thyme “dripped and crackled like fire” after rain. These details, though sparse, are enough to plunge the reader into the warm south, where expectations lean towards the shedding of inhibitions, and clothes. The novel does not disappoint on either front: Marguerite finds romance beyond the house’s walls, and the narrative accrues an easy grace, moving towards an ending that lingers like a long summer twilight, throwing up big questions on life and how best to live it.
For a story about a dying man, this is a book with plenty of life and passion in it. So for a rollercoaster of a read with serious intent, get on the ground floor and try this sexy, single-minded and occasionally silly debut.