Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
Valley of Grace
by Marion Halligan
Allen & Unwin
ISBN:9781741756944, 247 p, Trade paper, March 2009, RRP $29.95
Like it’s delicate burnished cover, Valley of Grace has an understated richness. It’s a quiet novel in that there is little overt dialogue, and the action takes place slowly, carefully, observed through the gentle lens of its main character Fanny. The novel is set in Paris, and, like its characters, the city is seen through a soft focus that only a loving visitor could provide. It’s a Paris of renovation, of food markets full of exquisite produce, of antiquarian bookshops and wonderful, magical chocolate shops. Fanny is interested in the history of the buildings around her, and these interests and tidbits of historical fact are conveyed to the reader. Fanny fits her Paris beautifully. She’s graceful, slender, well dressed in dark, sophisticated clothing that hugs her frame. But underneath the attractive exterior, there is a very human longing. Fanny and Gérard are happily married, but aren’t finding it easy to conceive a child.
The novel is structured as a series of almost independent short stories. The key story and linking linchpin is the story of Fanny and Gérard. Other stories include the tale of Luc and Julian, the story of Severine, Thierry and their two children, the story of Jean-Marie, the great philosophy professor, and his long suffering wife Sabine. All are love stories of a sort, involving a couple, children, and parents, and the relationships contained within these small family units. The progression of the novel happens as each of these stories is stretched to allow for the progression and change that time inevitably brings, but it all happens organically. The interweaving of the stories, where the protagonist of one becomes a minor character in another, is done with great deftness. We get to know the characters through a number of different perspectives that change, depending on whose story is being focused on. The perfect webs of these relationships are torn in tiny ways, and then reform to become something slightly different, and then that changes again. It’s a theme that Halligan uses to draw the novel together:
The strength of a net is the myriad thin threads of which it is made. If even one of these is cut or broken then the precise perfect tension of the whole is irremediably lost. The things which it is designed to contain poke or bulge through it, possibly they fall out altogether, and are lost or broken. Some treads broken mean more threads break, and finally the net is a net no longer, but a snarled and snaggled tangle of threads. (53)
Luc runs the antiquarian bookstore that Fanny works in, and is involved in a loving relationship with Julian, who lives with him upstairs. Julian is a nurse, and his idea of what constitutes a strong relationship isn’t the same as Luc’s. Their story unfolds in parallel to the story of Fanny and Gérard, bisecting at odd moments. Fanny’s mother Cathérine is friends with Sabine, who is married to the wealthy and well-respected philosopher Jean-Marie, but his life, like Cathérine’s, isn’t exactly as it seems. There are indelicacies, allowances, and indulgencies that Jean-Marie demands, and Sabine plays her part with glamour and decorum as per the “rules”, but that’s not enough to keep down the demands of her heart. Accidents happen, and the rules are broken. Sabine changes. Jean-Marie changes. And Cathérine too changes as she delves into the secrets of her past, learning about the people she thought she knew and finding out about ones she didn’t in a way that links her with the past and reconciles her with the present:
Catherine was looking intently at the mirror, Monique had her head tipped sideways and was gazing idly at nothing. Two women eating lunch in an old bistro that would have looked exactly like this when their father was making love to their mothers. But that was in another place as well as another time, in a country that nearly wasn’t this France that they were both now enjoying. And both the women are dead. (201)
Though the novel remains controlled and elegant throughout, never losing the grace hinted at by the title, there are mysteries that unfold in its progression, and there are pregnancies, both real and metaphoric, that gestate. Sometimes the gestation is quite a long one, and sometimes there are things that must be resolved first, before new life can come along. Cathérine and her daughter Fanny travel to the Véresac of Cathérine’s youth, to discover the history of Fanny’s grandfather Fleuret, who was a member of the Resistance during World War II and shot by the Germans when Cathérine was a young girl. The way in which Halligan maps the generations together, pairing and comparing mother and daughter is moving and satisfying. The stories may or may not end happily. In Valley of Grace, nothing is absolute. All happiness has an element of sadness, and all sadness has a positive edge. There is disappointment and there is satisfaction. Both are sides of the same coin. All stories meet up at some intersection. This is a novel full of grace, and it has many charms, quiet though they might be, for the reader. The depictions of both city and country France are rich and tender. So too, as Halligan fans would expect, are the sensual descriptions that fill this book, from Fanny and Gérard’s love scenes, to the delicious pastries, chocolates, and regional dishes that the characters eat. Valley of Grace is a delightful genre-transcending book full of joy and sorrow. It’s easy to read and slow to digest: the perfect combination.