Michèle Lesbre, a former schoolteacher, apparently wrote detective novels before turning to literary fiction in 2001. It didn’t take her long to climb the ranks: her 2007 novel, Le canapé rouge, was a finalist for France’s prestigious Goncourt prize and has been translated into eight languages — though not, as far as I can see, into English.
A short novel, it also finds space to be meandering and thoughtful.. Anne, the narrator, is travelling to Lake Baikal on the Trans-Siberian Railway. She is following her ex-lover, Gyl, who left Paris for Russia and has broken off their once frequent correspondence. Gazing out at the scenery, Anne recalls conversations with her elderly neighbour Clémence, a former costume designer surrounded by the fashionable hats she’s made. Anne would call on Clémence regularly and read to her; the two would often drink in a nearby café afterwards. In a subtle narrative switch, this interlaced sub-plot comes to the fore, and Anne finally learns the true significance of both the journey she’s on and the memories she decorates it with.
Somehow, Lesbre manages to ruminate on questions of love and life with neither self-indulgent sentiment nor stuffy language. This book will resonate with anyone who has ever taken a break from a busy life, made it to their train seat and paused to turn things over in their mind. Publishers in other countries have recognised its worth – it deserves an English translation soon.
Ollie Brock, Online Editor, Granta