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Laura Alcoba: Par la forêt (Through the Forest)

The book opens in December 1984. Claudio and Griselda are Argentinians who have fled the country for political reasons. They are working as joint caretakers at a school in Paris. On that day Claudio is painting a building while Griselda is looking after their three children, a daughter, Flavia and two sons, Sacha and Boris. Claudio is clearly annoyed with Griselda, partially because she is wearing too much make-up. She calls out to him and says she is not feeling well. He ignores her because he couldn’t bear to listen to her. When he finally does go into their lodge, the two boys are dead.

The story is told in the present time when the narrator, clearly our author, is writing the story of the events both before and after the deaths and interviews four of the key characters – Griselda, the now forty year old Flavia, Colette, Flavia’s teacher at the time of the incident and her husband René. The couple had no children of their own and took Flavia on holiday with them them when she was a child.

The book is to some degree divided into two halves, with the first part of the book focussed more on Griselda and the second part more on Flavia.

Griselda had not had had a happy childhood and clearly did not get on at all with her mother, who preferred her sister. Throughout the book the mother is referred to simply as La MADRE. Things go badly with her mother and her life, so much so that she tries suicide three times. The pills fail but the gun she uses the third time left a bullet in her skull. Though she survived, it gives her frequent headaches and clearly affects her mental wellbeing.

Griselda eventually met Claudio in a left-wing bookshop. He was married with children but they started an affair. This actually saved him from arrest as he was with Griselda when the police came to his house but arrested Janine, his French wife. She was released and, with the two children, fled to France. Claudio and Griselda flee to France via Brazil. Janine is with her parents and Claudio joins them while Griselda is stuck in a refugee house. She is not happy and presents Claudio with an ultimatum. She gets pregnant. They marry. They got the caretaker jobs.

The second part of the story consists of the interviews the narrator carries out with the four mentioned above, some thirty-four years laterAll interviews take place at the same restaurant/café – Le Bucheron. The narrator, who had known the family, starts with Flavia, now a successful photojournalist. With Flavia, we learn how she coped both in the immediate aftermath of the event and then later. She tells us what happened on that day and what happened to her mother and father.

The interview with Flavia is followed by the interview with Griselda who seems willing to talk about what happened while Colette and René give something of an interested outsider’s perspective as well as their relationship with Flavia.

In all the interviews, the narrator is not behaving like a journalist, getting to the bottom of the story, though that inevitably, is part of it. Rather she is interested in, firstly, telling a story and secondly to see what happened and where the four characters are now as regards what happened. As she says I’ve known it all along: I am writing this book for her. I write for the little girl she was and still is. Her/the little girl is, of course, Flavia.

There is one interesting aspect. As mentioned she is writing a story. Though, with one exception, she does not make much of this, there is clearly a myth/fairy tale element to it all. We have Griselda’s mother who reminds us us of the the wicked stepmother of fairy tales. Griselda seems to me a fairy tale name. the interviews take place at Le Bucheron, the French for woodcutter, a key fairy tale character. In the period before the event Griselda, to Claudio’s disgust, keeps putting lots of make-up on, a mask, if you will also found in myth. However the key event is the full recounting of the tale of Jason and Medea. There are clearly some similarities between Medea and Griselda, such as both both flee their home and travel abroad with the man they love. However the main similarity is, of course, the infanticide, and Medea’s infanticide is certainly not the only one in myth and legend. Alcoba does not make a big thing about this but it is clear that she sees herself as a story-teller and not a journalist, lawyer, social worker or any other person who may have been involved in these events.

Because this is not just a straightforward account of a tragedy but, rather, is focussed more on the backstory (Griselda’s story, her relationship with both her mother and husband and the situation the family faced in France ) as well as , as the author herself tells us, the consequences, particularly for the one entirely innocent party, namely Flavia and how it affected and still affects all concerned it makes the book i more far more interesting than a straightforward account would have done.

Laura Alcoba is clearly a first-class story teller even if her stories are often based in reality (as she says this book is). There is one other book by her available in English and, hopefully, there will be more.

Publishing history

First published in French in 2022 by Gallimard
First published in English by in 2024 by Fum d’Estampa
Translated by Martin Munro