cover image The Penalty Area

The Penalty Area

Alain Gillot, trans. from the French by Howard Curtis. Europa (PRH, dist.), $16 trade paper (192p) ISBN 978-1-60945-353-4

Expertly translated by Curtis, Gillot’s novel about soccer is about more than the bruising arena of competitive sports. It is also a delicate character study of a solitary man slowly rejoining the world. Growing up, Vincent Barteau dreamed of being a professional soccer player. But that dream was crushed by a career-ending injury. Now Vincent keeps alive his connection to the sport by coaching a youth team in Sedan, France. One day, his circumscribed existence is shattered by the arrival of his estranged sister, Madeleine, a single mother who asks him to care for her 13-year-old son, Leonard, while she attends a job-training program. Vincent has had no experience caring for a teenager. But it turns out that the boy has a real talent as a soccer goalie and makes Vincent’s team suddenly viable. Leonard is later diagnosed as having Asperger’s syndrome. Thanks to the boy, Vincent begins to come out of his shell. Then, Madeleine reappears and says that she wants Leonard back. Throw in Vincent and Madeleine’s dying mother and Leonard’s confinement to a special home, and the scene is set for a dramatic climax that pulls out all the emotional stops. This is a short novel, but Vincent’s redemption as a brother and surrogate father feels fully earned and free of false sentiment. Years ago, this novel would have made a wonderful vehicle for French star Gérard Depardieu. (Sept.)