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Cécile Coulon: Death in Paradise

Halfway between a thriller and a family tragedy, A Beast in Paradise follows the lives of two strong women, a grand-mother and her granddaughter, who are both deeply attached to their native land. A story of love and vengeance driven by the cutting writing style of French novelist and poet Cécile Coulon, published in English on February 2.
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© Thierry Zoccolan/AFP

Paradise, a secluded farm in the rural center of France, could be the setting for hell on earth. Standing in the middle of the former pigpen, the aging Blanche remembers. As a little girl, she felt strong ties with this harsh countryside, where the winters are freezing and the summers suffocatingly hot. After their parents were killed in an accident, Blanche and her little brother Gabriel were raised by their grandmother, Emilienne, a strict but loving matriarch. As a teenager, the young woman fell in love with Alexandre, one of her schoolmates, arousing the jealousy of the farm hand, Louis. Blanche saw her life mapped out before her. She would marry Alexandre and take over the farm. But the ambitious young man fled to the city, then to another continent, leaving her alone with her bitterness.

Structured like a Greek tragedy, Cécile Coulon’s seventh novel follows a line of women rooted in a place where they remain as voluntary prisoners. They are accompanied by a variety of men, whether frail and weak like Gabriel, or submissive and loyal like Louis, who came to Emilienne as a teenager to escape his violent father. This claustrophobic, open-air account of an impending death is buoyed by a precise and resounding writing style, punctuated with images and scenes that leave a lasting mark: a sinister, hundred-year-old tree that looks like gallows, a spider eaten to complete a secret ceremony, intertwined bodies in the intimacy of a bedroom while a pig is slaughtered outside. And who is the beast? Is it Blanche? The desire for vengeance eating away at her? Or the animal that refuses to be tamed?

Born in 1990, Cécile Coulon grew up in a village in the Massif Central region and published her first book at the age of 16. Raised on American literature and cinema, she has set two of her novels in the United States: Méfiez-vous des enfants sages (2010), steeped in the southern atmospheres of Carson McCullers, and Le roi n’a pas sommeil (2012), inspired by Steinbeck. Blending rural novel with roman noir, A Beast in Paradise celebrates the dangerous passions of a woman and a land which, behind it all, is the book’s true character.

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A Beast in Paradise by Cécile Coulon, translated from French by Tina Kover, Europa Editions, 2021. 256 pages, 17 dollars.


Article published in the February 2021 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.

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