Other Press, 2020. $17.99, 432 pages.
FIRST PUBLISHED in France in 2018, the year of the gilets jaunes protests, Mathieu’s Prix Goncourt–winning novel captures the restless energy of dejected teenage boys growing up in an industrial valley in the Great East region of France over four summers in the 1990s, where the ruins of blast furnaces from the defunct Metalor firm serve as landmarks as well as daily reminders of their fathers’ lost working-class glory and the racial tension codified by the plants’ nativist pecking order.
Opening with a section titled “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Mathieu follows a fourteen-year-old boy named Anthony and his older cousin on a quest to visit a nude beach on the other side of a nearby lake in fictional Heillange. They steal a canoe from the sailing club, barely evade capture for their stunt, and find the beach empty. Later, they meet some girls from town who look down on them for appearing scruffy and desperate, but manage to get invited to a house party after sharing some hash with the girls. The boys’ determination to save hours of walking to the party by borrowing Anthony’s father’s motorcycle, which he plans to sell to pay off a debt, sets in motion a tragic chain of events that will inextricably link Anthony to a troubled party-crasher named Hacine for years to come.
Each section of the narrative is titled with a reference to a popular song, which simultaneously reflects the characters’ particular moods and highlights the unbridgeable gulf between how they’d like to see themselves and the isolated reality of their provincial existence. Between bursts of dramatic scenes that read like Knausgaard on seek mode, Mathieu moves blithely between close third-person narrations of his protagonists (“At night, wearing headphones, [Anthony] sometimes wrote songs. His parents were jerks.”) and broad sociological statements, such as a description of the impact made by “Smells Like Teen Spirit” upon its release: “The song was spreading like a virus wherever you found loser working-class kids, pimply teens, fucked-over crisis victims, unwed mothers, morons on motorbikes, hash smokers, and trade-school dropouts. . . .They were letting their hair grow and turning their sadness into anger…. ”
Mathieu is good at channeling the rage, misery, and hopelessness of Hacine, whose father was born in Morocco and once worked at Metalor, and now sternly raises Hacine in ZUP housing. After the fateful party, Hacine meets with a social worker who is meant to help him find work, but only confirms the society’s racist and classist bias. The counselor is surprised to find that Hacine knows how to use a computer, and warns him not to exchange high fives in front of potential employers (“It just doesn’t look good, see?”), but doesn’t give him any job leads.
Meanwhile, Steph, one of the girls Anthony meets on the beach, faces her own uncertain prospects of the future. Her father, an aspiring politician and developer who sees opportunities in remaking the desolate region into a vacation and cultural destination, insists Steph get straight A’s, but never explains why. After letting a rich kid who hides behind Quiksilver shades take advantage of her throughout high school, Steph begins to toy with Anthony, who’s harbored a crush on her all along.
By the end, Anthony, Hacine, and Steph all remain tied to Heillange. While they find momentary elation in the wizardry of Zidane, who advances France into the World Cup finals, they remain captive to the burdens of work, debt, and long commutes in decentralized, deindustrialized peri-urban areas underscored by the yellow-vested mobilization two years ago. There’s little hope in Mathieu’s grim tale of the end of youthful ecstasy, but he locates the bittersweet flavor that comes from accepting where one is from.
David Varno is the ﬁction reviews editor at Publishers Weekly and a freelance critic.