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Review: The Moment Before Drowning, by James Brydon
Akashic, 2018. 224 pp. $26

When Captain Jacques le Garrec returns to his native Brittany in December 1959, his arrival creates a stir, as a former Resistance hero and police detective, a local boy who made good. But the wrong kind of notoriety trails him too, because he’s been brought back to France to face accusations regarding his interrogations of suspected terrorists in the colonial war in Algeria. In the days preceding his legal hearing, a local lycée teacher has asked him to investigate the death and mutilation of a brilliant girl, a student of his. This is a distraction for le Garrec, to be sure, but that’s what he needs.

It’s a small town, where everybody knows everything about everyone else, or thinks they do, so it’s somewhat surprising that the police haven’t solved the crime. However, they haven’t tried hard, a mystery in itself. Another puzzle is why le Garrec has returned in apparent disgrace. Did he torture one too many civilians, and is that really considered a crime by the French forces pursuing this increasingly savage, unwinnable war? Or is his crime something different?

Brydon handles both narratives with skill and an elegant simplicity I admire. The whodunit part, the standard, expected tale, remains tense to the end, though the number of suspects is small, and the evidence is in plain sight. But the greater pleasure of this fine debut novel derives from the parallel narratives of the torture cells in Algeria and the murder investigation, a terrific juxtaposition that asks what purpose law and its enforcement actually serve. And that’s why le Garrec’s in trouble, because he dared pose that question in Algeria.

Consequently, the conflict occurs in le Garrec’s head, as his memories of Algeria deny him sleep, and in his investigation. Not only does the dead Breton girl recall a young woman he interrogated (the event prompting the charges against him); the police inspector, a brutal bigot, reminds him of his superior in Algeria. Lafourgue, the inspector, is a well-drawn character, and as a petty ego inflated with barely repressed rage and unsatisfied desire, he makes a good foil for le Garrec. The contempt that Lafourgue expresses for the murder victim shocks le Garrec and perhaps explains why the inspector has felt no particular urgency to find the killer. But Brydon’s accomplishing much more than thematic development here. He’s linked his protagonist’s inner and outer journeys, a winning combination every time, if done right.

And Brydon does a lot right, starting with the vivid prose:

As I walk from the bus stop along familiar, deserted streets the sky seems enormous, bloated, and infinite, billowing over everything. I lose myself in swirls of gray; great, bulbous streaks of darkness; every possible permutation of impending rain. After two years in Algeria I feel the Breton damp seeping into my body, chilling me, and the ice carried on the wind settling in my blood. Out by the sea, which I can perceive only as a howl frustrated by the rocks, the beam of the lighthouse flashes its warning into the encroaching dark: a fragile blade of light that swings away and is lost, only to return each time and abide in the blindness of the night.

Where he goes wrong, I think, is to rush. Sometimes, the characters don’t speak so much as they expound, which sounds canned, intended to reveal essential information or a person’s trait in a single passage. I notice this especially in the beginning and whenever le Garrec interviews witnesses for the first time. What’s the hurry? Engage the reader emotionally, and you can write at Tolstoyan length. What creates tension isn’t information about le Garrec but who and what he loves, his feelings about himself and his situation, his struggle to redeem himself. Brydon conveys that, of course; if he didn’t, his novel could be half the size it is, yet not work. It seems like a lack of trust (or poor editorial advice) that has led him to sprint through emotional changes as if the words were on fire, which then requires him to move on to what comes next to put it out. But those are actually the moments in which the reader wants to insert him- or herself into the narrative and ask what he or she would do under the same circumstances. End that connection abruptly, and the novelist breaks the mood, yanking the reader out of the narrative.

Nevertheless, I think that The Moment Before Drowning is well worth reading (with the caveat that there are many scenes of torture, so be warned). I look forward to seeing what the author can do once he gains more confidence in his readers and, perhaps, himself.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher via Historical Novels Review, where this post first appeared in shorter, different form.