Apocalypse Baby, Virginie Despentes, The Feminist Press, 2015, 336 pp (translated from the French by Sian Reynolds, orig pub 2010 in France by Editions Grasset & Fasquelle)
Summary from Goodreads: Valentine, the troubled daughter of a well-off but dysfunctional Parisian family, vanishes on her way to school. Inexperienced private detective Lucie Toledo is hired to find the missing teenager, and enlists the help of a formidable agent with a past, known to her friends as the Hyena. Their quest, from Paris to Barcelona and back, uncovers a rich cast of characters whose paths have crossed Valentine's, leading to an alarming climax. Part political thriller, part road-movie, part romance, the latest novel by subversive writer and film-maker Virginie Despentes won the Prix Renaudot 2010 for the pitiless gaze it directs at society in the age of the internet.
For several years I've been following a couple blogs that deal solely in translated literature: Three Percent and The Complete Review. This year I set myself a challenge to read more novels translated from other languages by writers that live in other countries than the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, and Australia. How have I done so far?
Counting up I found that out of 92 books read this year, eight were originally written and published in another language. That is almost 9%, so not too bad.
Of those eight books, three had already become hot sellers in America: From Italy Elena Ferrante's The Story of a New Name and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay; Nina George's The Little Paris Bookshop, written in German but set in France. Three are classics written and translated long ago: Independent People by Haldor Laxness from Iceland, Dead Souls from Russia by Nikolai Gogol, and The Marioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki from Japan. I also read Yannik Grannet's The Goddess of Small Victories, written in French but set in Vienna and America because it is about the wife of Kurt Godel.
Reading those books has been a good experience though what I really want is more books being written and set in the 21st century so I can get a grasp of what life is like now in countries I have not traveled to. Apocalypse Baby fit the bill.
It was written in French and set in Paris and Barcelona in about 2008 or 2009. Though I have been to Paris two times in my life, I only had the tourist experience. The two female private investigators searching for a missing teenage girl are beyond streetwise and operate far outside the tourist milieu.
Valentine, the missing teen, is from a somewhat privileged family but her mother Vanessa is of North African Arab descent, being the one sister who clawed her way out of the ghetto to marry a French novelist. After Vanessa deserted the novelist and her daughter, Valentine grew up to be a full participant in the naughtiest of youth culture pastimes.
One of the investigators is Lucie, over 30, a bit of a non-motivated loser who tends to do the least work possible. The other is a force of nature called The Hyena, a feminist lesbian with a secret agent for hire past which has pretty much caught up with her.
As they troll through Parisian youth culture and the Arab slums of Barcelona, the book presents a view of these cities not seen in tourist brochures or even on the news. Valentine is one of the more depraved teens I've found in a novel: groupie, slut, fearless narcissist. But as the reader is dragged through this miasma of lust and violence, an even more deadly political scene rears its head and leads to an almost unbelievable climax.
I found Apocalypse Baby an exciting read full of complex characters, wise commentary on current topics, humor, and nail biting suspense. For me, it painted a gritty picture of 21st century life in two European cities. I realized that any modern country has its own unique mix of situations made up of economic, ethnic, and other cultural factors.
Possibly the book should come with a warning sticker although the cover illustration may act as its own warning. I recommended it to one of my reading groups and it was just too much for two of the ladies. Virginie Despentes is an award-winning author and filmmaker in France. She has written nine novels, only three of which have been translated into English.
One more thing: I found this book through Three Percent's 2015 World Cup of World Literature. I am working my way through the list.