cover image This Strange Eventful History

This Strange Eventful History

Claire Messud. Norton, $29.99 (448p) ISBN 978-0-393-63504-1

Messud (The Burning Girl) draws from her own family history for this exquisite multigenerational saga of the Cassars, a pied-noir clan exiled from Algeria by the country’s 1954–62 war of independence. Patriarch Gaston Cassar and his wife, Lucienne, whose seemingly perfect marriage contains within it a scandalous secret (the particulars of which dovetail artfully in Messud’s telling with the lingering stain of colonialism on France and the pieds-noirs), make peace with their displacement by clinging to their Catholic faith. Their daughter, Denise, follows her parents from Buenos Aires to Toulon, France, nursing a series of unrequited loves and a fierce sense of injustice. Her older brother, François, earns a spot at one of France’s most prestigious lycées but can’t bear the damp cold of Paris, or the shame of being from a colonial outpost the rest of the nation is ready to abandon. He makes his way to America on a Fulbright fellowship and then to Oxford University, where he meets Barbara, a Canadian student drawn to his Gallic “insouciance.” Their marriage strains, but never breaks, under the weight of their cultural differences and Barbara’s frustrated ambitions. In the novel’s final sections, their youngest daughter, Chloe, reckons with the older generations’ physical and mental decline, and with her own sense of rootlessness. In her characteristically artful prose, Messud burrows inside the hearts and minds of her key players, bringing to their struggles and self-deceptions a deep-veined empathy made even more remarkable by how close she is to the story. This is a wonder. (May)