The terror of living and loving
An 81-year-old woman is strolling about in her farm, reeling from nostalgia, dead leaves crunching under her feet. She is planting newly bloomed flowers in an empty pig pen. Why does she mourn? What is her past? In A Beast in Paradise (Europa Editions, 2021) Cécile Coulon recollects the events that led her to her current state.
The farm, entitled Paradise, has been looked after solely by Emilienne following her daughter and son-in-law's untimely death. She lives with her orphaned grandchildren, Blanche and Gabriel, and house-help, Louis. The title's resonance grows loud as soon as we are introduced to Emilienne's children's death a few pages into the novel. Grief is a beast. It claws away at the heart until peace has vanished. Add heartbreak, obsession, jealousy, and fury to the mix, and we see the creature in its complete form pulsing through the story.
Winner of the Le Monde Literary Prize, Coulon has authored seven novels before this English language debut, and her translator Tina Kover is a National Book Award and PEN Translation Prize finalist. This novel makes a convincing case for more literary contributions from the duo. Their writing constantly reminded me of Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things (1997) and The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree (2017) by Shokoofeh Azar.
Emilienne is a willful matriarch. Her world begins and ends at Paradise and she is intensely protective of this property, and the ones who reside in it. She "patched up the children's wound like a field surgeon lacking supplies; she made do with what she had", Coulon writes.
Blanche is a precocious child who shines in her classroom and the farm. It comes as a shock when someone so gifted and adept at academics decides to stay back at the village, helping her grandmother manage the farm, instead of opting for higher education like her classmates. Her brother, Gabriel, is taciturn. Unlike her, he continues to grieve for his parents. "His constant fatigue […] excluded him from this strange family, whom he loved, certainly, but those arms were too full to gather him up in a hug." Beyond the blood relations, Louis, even though a house-help, is closely connected to the family. A child living under the shadow of an abusive father, he takes refuge at Emilienne's and makes Paradise his home. Growing up, he develops an unrequited desire for Blanche, and it soon turns into an obsession that makes him hate Alexandre, Blanche's one and only love.
Blanche and Alexandre's love affair might seem harmless at the outset. But as their goals and desires clash (Blanche being strongly devoted to the farm and Alexander longing for the city), their relationship takes an unwanted turn, gutting Blanche in ways that will persist over time.
All the characters here are obsessed with one thing or another, be it Gabriel's attachment to solitude or Blanche's to Alexandre and the land. Perhaps it was the author's main intention to portray the trajectory of a few lives through the lens of obsession, a base human characteristic.
Perhaps she also had the clash of urban and rural elements in her mind as the grand scheme of things. If Blanche reflects the rural landscape in this novel, Alexandre embodies the city. The life courses these two individuals embrace are a clever technique that the author uses to explore the uneasy tension between the two spaces.
Only 189 pages-long, this flighty novel is poetic, fast-paced, and wastes not a single word or scene. The reader is hooked from the beginning, and its hypnotic, nightmarish charms do not fade until the end. The fully fleshed out characters and their exploration of life's tricky terrains cling to the reader's mind long after the last page has been turned.
We all have beasts in our own Paradises; this is what the novel screams throughout its duration.
Shah Tazrian Ashrafi is a contributor.