Books

Camille Laurens: A Woman’s Life

In Girl, recently published in the United States, the novelist and Prix Goncourt jury member portrays a woman’s life from the 1960s to the new millennium, highlighting inequalities, obligations, and an omnipresent violence that even infuses language. A raw, unflinching take on the construction of the self.
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© Jean-Philippe Baltel/Sipa

Her parents wanted a boy because they already had a girl. In a Freudian slip, her father, a doctor, forgot the female version of her name when he registered her birth. A girl, “yes, yes, that’s nice too,” he murmurs when asked about the baby’s sex, failing to completely hide his disappointment. Born in 1959 to a middle-class family, Laurence Barraqué, the narrator, grows up in a society which implicitly upholds a deep-rooted, unquestioned belief that girls are incomplete beings, amputated, creatures in the background. As a child, her sister nicknames her “Fatta” – as in “Fat Ass.” When she is a teenager, her best friend dies of anorexia after trying too hard to replicate the beauty ideals of the time. At the age of 16, Laurence takes a train alone to Paris to have an abortion, just two years after it was made legal. She spends her whole life internalizing the shame, wearing it like a second skin.

These are the commonplace, brutal, and insidious forms of sexism that Camille Laurens dissects and analyzes, right down to the way we speak and write. From her birth to her fifties, the novelist follows the construction of Laurence (the writer’s real name) from the angle of her sex and gender, overturning obligations and orders in her wake. Shifting between the perspectives of “you,” “I,” and “she” while blurring the lines between novel and autofiction, she digs through the clay of memories, examining taboos until she finds an act of incest draped in silence. “I can see her, I say. Across the intervening years, I see myself in that child as if looking in a mirror, but it’s someone else that ‘things’ happen to, otherwise I can’t do it,” she writes, before describing what Uncle Félix, her grandfather’s brother, did to the little girl in the middle of a vegetable patch. For years after, she feels the blade of the knife – the man’s genitals – pressed against her back.

Comprising two parts that reflect each other, the novel is divided by the narrator’s first child, a boy who dies at birth. A girl named Alice is born later, opening the door to other ways of being and loving, of having a woman’s body. Without any pretense of modesty, Camille Laurens offers a detailed description of the smell of menstrual blood, a stain of sperm on a coat, and the shape of the placenta that the father, a doctor, throws into the toilet, as if to flush away the pain of loss. Intertwining private lives and collective stories in a way that, in some regards, is akin to the works of Annie Ernaux, she accompanies the narrator towards a realization that is as much hers as it is ours.

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Girl by Camille Laurens, translated from French by Adriana Hunter, Other Press, 2022. 256 pages, 16.99 dollars.


Article published in the June 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.

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