The Confidant by Hélène Grémillon

6th Feb 2013


A beautiful and intricate literary story of family history, secrets and wartime Paris, Hélène Grémillon’s prize-winning début The Confidant examines issues of motherhood and infertility in an era both very different from, and eternally similar to, our own.

The novel, translated into English by Alison Anderson, opens in Paris, in 1975. We meet Camille Werner, a publisher dealing with the untimely death of her mother, reading the sometimes puzzling letters of condolence arriving by post, and piecing together the secrets of her mother’s past and the story of her own birth.

These unsigned letters concern lives around the time just before the Second World War, and detail the love between Louis and Annie, people that Camille does not initially believe have anything to do with her. The letters, she is sure, can only have reached her through some sort of mix-up.

A beautiful and intricate literary story of family history, secrets and wartime Paris... The novel’s structure – it’s told via these letters – allows the reader to slip in and out of Camille’s mind, while simultaneously piecing together the story through the jigsaw-like pieces of paper.

Through the letters, we learn about Annie’s life, her friendship with one ‘Madame M‘, and her act of generosity that gave Madame M a child, borne by Annie.

Camille is initially reluctant to countenance that Madame M could indeed be Madame W(erner), inverted. As a publisher, she also wonders – could the letters come from a novelist, sending their story to her in instalments, in the hope they’ll be published?

It’s hard to say take sides with either protagonist here – we must choose between Annie, the liar, and Madame M, an obsessed and possibly vengeful woman.

However, as readers, we are given occasion to feel sympathy for both – one facing a situation whereby she has to abandon her maternal instinct, parting with her child, and the other having to face the possibility of a childless existence.

Surrogacy is a pivotal theme in this novel, and it is interesting to consider the ways in which infertility during the 1930s would be faced, compared with the approaches that modern technologically-advanced medicine offer.

The woman who is dependent on the altruism and surrogacy of Annie feels damned by her inadequacy in failing to meet her maternal role in society. Annie, meanwhile, feels damned and frustrated from the inevitability of giving up her child.

Although the historic details are not exactly spot-on (flaws can be found, should you choose to look for them), this is easily forgiveable.

It is to Grémillon’s great credit that she sets her readers exploring the multiple meanings of motherhood, and the shackles that it – or its absence – impose (Camille wonders whether abortion “imposes another form of slavery: guilt”). A subtle and touching inquiry into motherhood and identity, this is a book worth picking up.

The Confidant is published in paperback by Gallic Books, and is available from Foyles, Amazon or your local independent bookshop, priced at £5.99. An e-book version is also available, priced at £4.91.

Rating: 4/5

Recommended for:Fans of historical fiction and French literature

Other recommended reading: Check out The Girl on the Cliff by Lucinda Riley or Desiring Cairo by Louisa Young for more tales about motherhood.

Keira Brown