When I was younger, I discovered Pierre Lemaitre, a renowned French crime author, through one of his books, ‘Alex’. I was 13 or 14 at the time, and don’t remember too much about it (honestly, I think I was having a French phase at the time. I bought Kate Mosse’s Languedoc trilogy around the same time, and lapped it up), apart from the fact it was very good. Over Christmas, I was close to my physical copies of Lemaitre’s books (I have 4 in total), but this one I had never read.
I’m not certain what attracted me to it. Maybe it was the fact I had enjoyed ‘Alex’ so much. ‘Three Days and A Life’ is an exceptionally dark tale. It is told from the perspective of Antoine Courtin, who, at the age of 12, has a very boring life in the small town of Beauval. Everyone becomes their mother and there’s a strong sense of community, but nothing happens there. Until a crazy week in December 1999.
Without going into too much detail, Antoine loses the living being whom he is around the most – shot dead by Monsieur Desmedt, his neighbour. The following day, he is filled with sadness and anger. The Desmedt’s six year old son, Remi, has taken to following Antoine to his treehouse in the woods – and tragedy strikes from that point. The rest of the novel is spent considering the aftermath of what happened. Can Antoine ever leave what happened in the forest at Saint-Eustache behind?
The characters in ‘Three Days And A Life’ are brilliantly created. They show the many facets which humans have beyond the core characteristics we all own. The development of Madame Courtin, Antoine’s mother, is brilliant. Despite becoming a minor character in the flash forward sections of the book, her personality traits create a massive plot twist in the final pages as Lemaitre displays his true quality: character development.
The novel itself is plodding. The ending is poetic – and very interesting; if the final chapter hadn’t happened, however, I would not recommend reading this. The first 150 pages are fine, if at times slow. Occasionally, it feels like reading democracy in action; every character has an opinion which needs to be expressed, every character is doing something which heightens Antoine’s fear. However, the plot becomes more interesting in the final third, with the time jolt forwards to 2011 and 2015. Again, to not give it away, I won’t go into too much detail, but the 2011 section feels more dramatic, more chaotic. Antoine seems to be a man plagued by making one bad decision after another; this, and strange combinations of situations trap him inside his own life.
Some of the linguistic choices are… interesting. I don’t know how much of it is down to the translation, but occasionally the words can feel slightly clinical. At other times, they seem to be the work of (accidental?) genius. There’s a bluntness to the writing which is rarely seen from English language authors – certain passages are so brutal about specific characters that they are hilarious. I’m not certain that was the intention when it was written, but it really makes this book linger in my mind.
The final point I would make is that I appreciate the weaving in of a real-life event as a major plot point. In late December 1999, Europe (mainly France, Germany and Switzerland) was battered by storms, Cyclones Lothar and Martin. The pure horrors of being trapped in a natural disaster, and then dealing with the life changing consequences which come with it, are tenderly portrayed here. Something tells me this part of the novel was animated with a story which could have been more of an anecdote about the aftermath of the real event.
While I have criticised this book, it’s worth a read. Justice is certainly served in the end, and the way that this is done sets it apart from other novels, which may have gone about it in a more… traditional manner. Justice is done, but it’s more philosophical than physical. It’s just as pleasing though.