A review by booklane
Paul by Daisy Lafarge

challenging dark emotional tense medium-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? A mix
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? It's complicated
  • Diverse cast of characters? No
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes


 What if Gauguin had lived in the 21st century?

An absorbing coming-of-age novel about a dysfunctional, abusive relationship between Paul, an older man, and Frances, a young research student who flees Paris after a traumatic experience (of which we will learn later on).

Still confused, “half-formed" and untethered, she sets off on a trip that should take her to work on a few organic farms. In Noa Noa, she meets Paul, farm owner and amateur anthropologist who has returned from Polynesia to France with lots of artefacts and diaries. While initially the novel resembles a very conventional romance, little by little the asymmetric relationship begins to crumble: starting from tiny, nearly imperceptible details, we witness Paul’s psychological manipulations, mansplaining and passive-aggressiveness and the way he takes advantage of Frances’ fragility as even darker truths emerge. After she leaves the farm, his pull draws her back and the two embark on a trip through the majestic, hazy summer landscape of the sunny countryside. Although she gradually realises what is going on and her self-awareness emerges, we see her unable to react, malleable and often deprived of her voice, and by the end I was totally invested in her character. I am actually still fuming when thinking of him!

Lafarge sets the novel in the present tense and keeps the tone laconic for immediacy, to emphasise Frances’ state of self-detachment and to replicate the effect of the anthropologist’s gaze, as epitomized by Levi-Strauss’ quote on “the complete absorption of the observer by the object of his observation”. Despite this being intentional, at times I was left wanting for some deeper thoughts and more incisive writing and dialogues,. In fairness the novel also contains effective images and metaphors and after a cold start it still drew me in.

I was truly fascinated by the way Paul’s character is modelled on Paul Gauguin: the organic community is a modern version of Gauguin’s search for a primitive, pristine world and reflects Lafarge’s concerns with climate issues; as to the artist, modern postcolonial criticism has exposed him as a sexual predator who had wife and children in Europe but used his white privilege to marry and have children with thirteen-year old girls, infecting them with syphilis. Their elusive gaze on canvas says it all.

This makes for a harrowing and enraging read, a nuanced portrayal of the relationship between predator and prey and a compelling coming of age novel.
My thanks to Granta and Netgalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review. 

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