Book Review

The Girl You Call, the Mechanics of Control

Born in 1973, Tanguy Viel has written a dozen books and short story collections. In The Girl You Call, his second novel to be translated in the United States, forthcoming this month, he tells a tale of abuse in the style of an old-school roman noir.
© Patrice Normand

It could have been a story in a local newspaper. Max Le Corre, a former boxing star who has stepped back into the ring, almost kills the mayor of his town in Brittany to avenge his daughter, who was abused by the elected official. A sadly commonplace story from the world before #MeToo, a toxic mixture of sex, power, and corrupt political scheming. La fille qu’on appelle (the original French title), a literal translation of “call girl,” is Laura. Four years before, aged just 16, she abruptly dropped out of high school and left her father to go to Rennes, in the vague hope of working in fashion. At least, that’s what she tells the police officers who take her statement, although it is not initially clear who she is filing a complaint against – or why.

Through sentences written in the past tense stretching out like an unraveling ball of yarn, Tanguy Viel sifts through the details that led the young woman to the police station. Seeing his daughter without a job or a place to live, Max asked the mayor, for whom he works as a chauffeur, to meet with Laura. In a matter of seconds, with barely a glance, the mechanics of control were set in motion. What does consent truly mean when there is such a disparity in age and social standing between the two parties? What value is the word of a young woman who has posed nude in magazines when compared to that of a mayor and now government minister? What chance does an angry boxer, struck down by one fight too many, stand against an all-powerful employer?

Half tragedy, half police thriller, Tanguy Viel’s book offers up a no-holds-barred cast of characters taken straight from an old-fashioned film noir: Max, Laura, the typical provincial bigwig Mayor Quentin Le Bars, Franck, a white-suited casino manager and player of dirty tricks, Hélène, his sister, a former prostitute who reigns over the casino’s barmaids, two embarrassed policemen, and a trigger-happy bodyguard. In this story storming headfirst towards its nail-biting conclusion, the novelist examines the evasive nature of language, misguided assumptions, and the clichés that can put taboos into words. Everything plays out in the gaps, in the vagueness, in Laura’s feelings, as her lawyer makes it clear that she is not a “good victim.” The reader already knows that she will not emerge victorious from this mismatched battle. Yet she is one of the people who, through her courage and her words, have helped crack the veneer of the old world.

The Girl You Call by Tanguy Viel, translated from French by William Rodarmor, Other Press, March 19, 2024. 160 pages, 15.99 dollars.

Article published in the March 2024 issue of France-Amérique.