Imagine a Stephen King thriller hijacked by Proust. Clammy-handed suspense, nerve-shredding tension, but related in serpentine, elegant prose, each climax held suspended — deferred gratification. What Javier Marías did for the spy story, Laurent Mauvignier does for terror.
It begins quietly, with an ominous sense of something waiting to happen. An isolated hamlet in deep rural France; just three houses, one empty, one occupied by a family — Patrice, a farmer, his wife Marion and ten-year-old daughter Ida. In the third, Christine, an elderly bohemian artist, enjoys the seclusion with her dog for company. Each of these characters in turn will take up the narrative in a tortuous relay race. The Birthday Party shares its title with the Harold Pinter play, which could be a clue: in both, an innocent family group is invaded by elaborately polite strangers who take over first the arrangements for the celebration and then the lives of everyone involved.
The action unfolds over thirty-six hours as Patrice prepares a modest surprise party for Marion’s fortieth birthday. An independent spirit with a demanding job in the nearby town, she has a mysterious past. Patrice is a loving husband and devoted father, but he is in serious debt, battling to hold on to the family farm. Everyone has secrets, and there are stresses in the marriage which they try to conceal from Ida, who sees more than they realize. Christine and her paintings provide a place of safety and joy for the child.
On the day of the party Christine is baking a birthday cake when she’s confronted by a stranger asking to be shown round the neighboring empty house. Suspicious, she briskly sends him away. He will return, but not alone. And she has forgotten to lock the back door.
As a trio of soft-spoken villains calmly unleashes chaos, the celebration becomes a day of relentless vengeance. Who are these outsiders? Why are they here? And when knives and guns appear, who will survive? Telling more would involve spoilers. The book takes its time, and as the pressure builds, you may wonder whether violence will explode before the end of the next exquisitely meandering sentence. Be patient. When something happens, it happens very fast indeed.
The Birthday Party explores memory, revenge and love tested to the limit. Mauvignier, a leading French writer and multiple prize-winner, is well served by Daniel Levin Becker’s graceful translation which perfectly captures the mesmerizing rhythms and menace of this gripping psychological literary thriller.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s UK magazine. Subscribe to the World edition here.