Fifteen-year-old Sagesse LaBasse knows something about being caught on the wrong side of history. Her father and grandparents are repatriated French Algerians living out the conflicted legacy of colonials who fled their homeland during the violent uprisings of the early ’60s. Exile has been a defining quality for each of the LaBasse family members: an unbalanced grandfather who runs his family as he does the hotel he owns; an equivocating grandmother with delusions of her husband’s grandeur; Sagesse’s American mother, whose slavish appropriation of an upper-class French persona becomes increasingly compromising; and her charming and feckless father. The family survives for a time on the leaky raft of their imagined past, tethered uncomfortably to the present by Sagesse’s severely handicapped brother, who is a constant reminder of family duty and an emblem of their stasis.
It is Sagesse, true to her name, who brings insight to the family stories, tracing the interstices of politics, culture, and filial ties through events that happened before she was born, in a country she has never seen. Messud’s prose precisely evinces emotion without sentimentality, evoking the transient sensation of entering a dream. Sagesse conjures a mythic Algeria and visits vanished relatives: an abandoned sister; an illegitimate child; a great-grandmother determined not to leave Algeria.
If Algeria is the LaBasses’ paradise lost, Sagesse’s is the “ice-cream colored glory” of her grandfather’s hotel in the south of France. The night her grandfather shoots at a group of Sagesse’s teenage friends, her world begins to crumble. She is shunned by her friends and packed off to suburban Boston to visit her American aunt and cousins. From the vantage point of America, Sagesse is able to reflect back upon her own life. Sagesse’s ruthless regard for the truth has set the novel’s course through its family horror and humid environs, but here she has the space to reinvent herself the way she chooses.
This new self-awareness, however, bogs down the narrative. The pungent, pitiless adolescent voice is intermixed with more distant, reflective passages with the humorless analysis and academic vocabulary of a graduate student. And while this prose provides a sheen of erudition, it also gives Sagesse a certain haughtiness that can make her difficult to sympathize with. Then again, this distance leaves us with an even better sense of the expatriate double life— the impossible desire to leave the difficult emotions behind, or to find comfort in the abstracted truths Sagesse can wrangle from “the life behind the eye.”