Book Review

Nathacha Appanah: Within Walls

In her short novel written in the style of a fairy tale and recently translated into English, the author and journalist from Mauritius retraces the past of a mother and her two children, the youngest of which, Wolf, is held in a juvenile detention center. A powerful book about generational violence and the desire to escape destiny.
© Francesca Mantovani

Some poems are recited so often at school that they become worn out like old clothes. One such example is “Le ciel est par-dessus le toit,” written by Paul Verlaine in 1873 when he was in prison for shooting his lover, Arthur Rimbaud. In Nathacha Appanah’s quasi-eponymous novel, Wolf, a 17-year-old boy, is sent to a juvenile detention center after being caught driving without a license and almost causing a serious accident.

Suffering from frequent panic attacks, the teenager grew up with his mother, Phoenix, and his sister, Paloma, who left home ten years earlier. In another life, Phoenix was Eliette, a little girl whose parents used to dress her up like a porcelain doll, forcing her onto stages to sing for adults. One day, a man with mint and cold tobacco on his breath put his tongue in her mouth, and everything changed. Years later, the good little girl has become a woman with red hair and an enormous dragon tattoo. A single mother who smells of sweat, metal, and jasmine, and who earns a living selling spare automobile parts.

“Once upon a time there was a country where they had built prisons for children because, in their efforts to turn these children into decent adults, that is to say people who keep to the straight and narrow, they could find no better means than prevention, taking them into care, deprivation, restriction, imprisonment, and a whole lot of other things that only take place within walls,” writes Nathacha Appanah in the opening pages. In a country like this, what place is there for rebels, the hypersensitive, the damaged, and the disquieted?

Scattering allusions to Verlaine’s poem like white pebbles, the novelist questions determinism, the reproduction of the mechanisms of violence within families, and the challenge of escaping tragedy. A dark tale that leaves a small window open onto the sky, “how calm and blue,” at least for those who know where to look.

The Sky above the Roof by Nathacha Appanah, translated from French by Geoffrey Strachan, Graywolf Press, 2023. 144 pages, 15 dollars.

Article published in the May 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.