Awarded the 2018 Prix Goncourt, “And Their Children After Them” follows a handful of young people between 1992 and 1998 in a French region hit by deindustrialization. Nicolas Mathieu’s second novel, published in English in the United States on April 7, is a vast social epic offering a masterful portrait of a forgotten France.
In the hot summer sun of Lorraine in 1992, teenagers are listening to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Anthony is 14. As an only child in a working-class family, he earns a little money helping his alcoholic, violent father with odd jobs paid in cash. When there is no work, the young man hangs out and smokes joints with his older cousin. One lazy afternoon, he meets Steph, the daughter of a wealthy car dealership owner, and is consumed with desire. In a neighboring housing project, Hacine, the son of a Moroccan laborer, lives on welfare and petty crimes. When Anthony borrows his father’s old motorbike one evening to go to a party without telling him, Hacine steals it. An act that will drag the boys and their families into a downward spiral of violence.
And Their Children After Them is set in a fictional town in Lorraine, a former mining and steelmaking region in Eastern France ravaged by unemployment. Taking place between 1992 and 1998, just before France won the soccer World Cup, the novel follows the lives of a group of teenagers as they grow up. A disillusioned generation facing determinism, class barriers, and the rise of the far-right Front National party. In a broken setting where the abandoned chimneys remind locals of their bygone industrial pride, Anthony, Steph, Hacine, and the others try to build a different life to the ones their parents had.
Born in Epinal, Lorraine, in 1978, Nicolas Mathieu published a crime novel, Aux animaux la guerre, before producing this extensive social saga driven by precise, sensual writing and an astonishing storytelling talent. When the narrative threads combine in a collective scene in which every character is celebrating Bastille Day, it is as though the whole country in all its diversity is gathered for the firework display. “So there they were,” writes Nicolas Mathieu. “Maybe not all, but a lot of them: the French. The old, the unemployed, the big shots, the kids on motorbikes, the Arabs from the projects, the disappointed voters and the single-parent families, the baby carriages and the owners of Renault Espace, the executives in Lacoste, the last workers, the sellers of French fries, the hotties in shorts, the hair-gelled, and, from farther away, the rustics, the inbreds, and of course a few grunts for good measure.”
In its portrait of a forgotten France, which the “yellow vests” movement has brought brutally to the fore, And Their Children After Them is a naturalist novel that ends on a complex, ambiguous sentiment, “the terrible sweetness of belonging.”
=> And Their Children After Them by Nicolas Mathieu, translated by William Rodarmor, Other Press, April 7, 2020. 432 pages, 10.99 dollars.