cover image Shame


Annie Ernaux. Seven Stories Press, $16.95 (111pp) ISBN 978-1-888363-69-2

Ernaux's last book, Exteriors, was a collection of incisive observations drawn from anonymous, momentary encounters, but now, Ernaux returns to her provincial French childhood, the world of her autobiographical novels Cleaned Out, A Woman's Story and the Prix Renaudot-winning A Man's Place. In each of those books, Ernaux portrayed her metamorphosis from the child of her petit bourgeois parents to a young woman embarrassed by them. Here, she traces that transformation back to June 15, 1952, the day ""[m]y father tried to kill my mother."" Another writer might brood endlessly over the personal significance of the event, but Ernaux is much too coolheaded for that. Having forgotten most of the details of the event itself, she refuses to make up something potentially bathetic. Instead she recalls and researches the details of the world outside the event, exposing the accepted code that governed language, behavior and even a young girl's aspirations. There are many lists: rules at private school (""we must make sure we never touch the handrail""); polite phrases (""It's a pleasure!""); what is good form (""to say that `the whole family joins in the evening prayers' and that one wants to take the veil""). None of which makes any accommodation for a shop woman's loud tirade or her husband's subsequent attack with a scythe. With unsparing lucidity, Ernaux strips herself and her memories of any comforting myth and in the process, she forces us to face the jarring facts of being human. (July)