Apocalypse Baby by Virginie Despentes

18th Jul 2013

Billed as 'a fearlessly feminist roadtrip novel,' Apocalypse Baby was awarded the 2010 Prix Renaudot, and has divided critics, readers and reviewers across Europe and beyond.

It’s over a decade since the feature film adaptation of her 1993 début Baise-Moi (written and co-directed by Despentes herself) caused such controversy, but Despentes remains as provocative, perceptive and polarising as ever.

Despentes has never been one to shy away from sex or violence, and Apocalypse Baby has copious quantities of both.She’s never been one to shy away from sex or violence, and Apocalypse Baby has copious quantities of both. It tells the story of Valentine Galtan, a secretive teenage rebel grrrl from an affluent but dysfunctional Parisian family.

Disconcerted by Valentine’s bad behaviour (the usual suspects of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll), her grandmother enlists Lucie Toledo, an inexperienced and ineffective private detective who’s soon in way over her head, after Valentine disappears without a trace while Lucie’s attempting to tail her.

Although chronologically linear, the narrative of Apocalypse Baby feels fragmented, with each chapter alternating between a revolving cast of characters with connections to Lucie or Valentine.

Before long, Lucie enlists the help of The Hyena, a much-mythologised rogue freelance agent with many conflicting rumours and reputations to her name, and the two travel from Paris to Barcelona and back again in search of Valentine.

Magnetic, manipulative and menacing, the Hyena is the obvious star of the show. Often overshadowed by her violence and charisma, by comparison the supporting cast seem sad and bland, and as a result empathy for them doesn’t always come easily.

Valentine herself remains a cipher; confused, frustrated, alienated from her family and questioning her identity. As social commentary about today’s teens, Valentine’s sense of disconnection and lack of direction might chime a recognisable chord, but in terms of storytelling it means we never get to know or understand her.

The impact of this is that her actions at the end of the book don’t feel believable, meaning the denouement comes across as confused, anticlimactic and ultimately disappointing.

That said, it’s a rare and refreshing read that features women in most positions of power, influence and importance, and Apocalypse Baby definitely passes the Bechdel Test.

Although it claims to be ‘part political thriller, part road-movie and part romance,’ Apocalypse Baby reads more like a character piece woven in with scathing observations about our culture and society, painting an ugly picture of the twenty-first century and all its preoccupations, obsessions, cynicism and corruption.

Often uncomfortable, sometimes clumsy but always absorbing, Apocalypse Baby is not as poignant or powerful as it perhaps could’ve been, but it’s nevertheless a tense, engaging and insightful read sure to divide opinion in true Despentes style.

Published last month by Serpent’s Tail, Apocalypse Baby is available in paperback now.