Children one day learn their parents are real people, flawed and desiring, with guarded whims and privacies and pasts entirely their own; husbands, it is hoped, already know this about their wives. Patrice Bergogne, the shambling, depressive dairy farmer in Laurent Mauvignier’s novel The Birthday Party, would rather forget it. His wife mystifies and intimidates him — too intelligent, too spirited, too much for their narrow life on his farm in rural France. She has a tattoo she never speaks about, from long before they met: a braid of barbed wire running down her back, encircling a blood-soaked rose. The sight of it frightens him. It’s clumsily done, unfeminine, violent, wrong. He wonders if in a previous life she rode motorcycles. The tattoo is a reminder: “Before she was a promise of love, Marion was a stranger, with the density of a life he knew nothing about.”
The Birthday Party (first published in French in 2020, now appearing in a deft English translation by Daniel Levin Becker) is set almost entirely in a bleak hamlet called Three Lone Girls Stead — a peculiar name, suggesting solitude, communion, danger. It’s a nowhere place, charmless and dilapidated, clearly marked for abandonment; perhaps it got its name because everyone else left. Patrice inherited his family’s farm there, on which he and Marion now live in unremarkable poverty with their sheltered young daughter, Ida. They own some fields, a handful of cows — “not enough to live on, but enough to not die.” Their only neighbor, Christine, is an eccentric artist and stand-in grandmother for the family. She’s thought to be “vaguely aristocratic and above all vaguely mad,” in part because she chose to leave a glamorous life in Paris and come to Three Lone Girls, where no sane person would live by choice, and in part because she spends her days painting and dyes her hair orange.
The novel initially seems to be a sort of cut-rate, seedier Mrs. Dalloway, swapping the lark and plunge of high-society London for the flat, waterlogged farmlands of France. It takes place over the course of a single day, as the hamlet’s inhabitants prepare for Marion’s fortieth birthday dinner that evening. There are presents to buy, decorations to hang. Patrice has decided not to splurge on a caterer; he will cook the meal himself. But beneath the placid surface of these activities — even when, “in concrete terms, very little is happening” — quiet disturbances begin to roil, and a sense of the family’s repressive rhythms gradually emerges. Ida distracts herself from wondering why she sometimes catches her mother crying; Christine struggles to muster some small kindness for Marion, whom she’s never liked; Marion doesn’t dare consider why she can scarcely bear to look at her husband anymore; Patrice tries not to dwell on the stakes of the evening, how the party is not just a party but a chance to save his fraying marriage, to snatch something back from their stunted existence and surprise Marion with some small tincture of happiness or excitement. As nightfall approaches, Mauvignier steadily unravels the shared illusions that prop up these domestic patterns, so familiar and drained of heat.
“Where is your wound?” asks Jean Genet. The line is the epigraph to Mauvignier’s 2009 novel The Wound, about the lasting marks of the Algerian War. In both of Mauvignier’s previously translated novels, The Wound and In the Crowd, he took up this notion of the unspoken, unseen scars left by violence and by history, something he returns to on a domestic scale in The Birthday Party.
But where is the wound here? It seems at first to be that of muted failure, decorous misery. Family stuff: regrets, lives unlived, lapses of intimacy or nerve. A familiar story, manageable. But there are other stories that crowd in, pressing against the glass, threatening to intrude. “There are secrets within secrets, though—always”; what French domestic drama would start with a quote from David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King? What sort of novel is this? Christine receives anonymous, threatening letters. Someone — a man most likely, though perhaps “a she-nut,” Christine thinks — has come all the way out here, to the sticks, to leave them at her door. To call her dirty names. The police can’t be bothered with it. The dread of other stories, other genres, creeps up on Patrice, too. He has debts. He fears that ruin will find the family, one way or another. It comes to pass in dreams, in sweaty hallucinations; the phone rings, a man comes knocking.
Mauvignier’s style is particularly well-suited to depicting this frame of mind, plumbing the subterranean operations of paranoia and denial. He writes in billowing, propulsive sentences, sometimes multiple pages long. The narration veers abruptly between consciousnesses, casting a pitiless gaze on characters’ hidden fears and depravities, tracing the contours of all they would rather not think about. In a particularly disturbing early chapter, Mauvignier follows Patrice as he journeys into a nearby town. His explicit purpose is to pick up Marion’s birthday present and supplies for the party. But his true intention is obscure even to himself. It leaks into conscious thought in euphemisms and slips of the tongue. The effect is thrilling. After completing his errands he strolls towards a cafe. He’ll kill some time, he thinks. But he passes by, walks deeper into town: “he knows where he’s going and tells himself he’s going somewhere else—or not even, he pretends to lie to himself by telling himself it’s just to think about the things he has to do or that he still hasn’t done.”
Without knowing how it happens, Patrice finds himself walking behind a young woman, a sex worker — and then, in the same endless, horrifying sentence, has sex with her in a garbage shed. He feels
as though he’s avenging himself on women, on the distance of his, but not only that, on his youth too, on the Playboy photos in Albert’s shed, on hicks like him who never had a chance to rank in the love lottery of the girls and boys their own age, and the hatred, the desire to come, the pleasure of the hatred rises to his head as he tells himself that everyone in the world takes him for an idiot, he who stinks of farm and mud, the rubber of his boots, the sudden hatred because he doesn’t love himself and because he never really has—and, for as far back as he can remember, if he liked living in the hamlet, on the farm, away from everyone, it’s because the animals, for their part, have never looked down on him.
The grim achievement of Mauvignier’s seething, recursive, semi-improvisational style lies in how he manages to portray a muddled mind — in this case, Patrice’s almost hallucinatory misogyny and the agonized passivity of his desires — with precise lucidity. Patrice does not know why he wants what he wants, nor why pleasure and hatred — of women, of his life, of himself — seem only to feed each other within him. He feels the shameful mingling of his habitual gentleness and the predatory impulses that lie just beneath it. A child’s inheritance from a violent father. The itch of a phantom scar.
These are some of the quiet atrocities that blight the lives of these characters, and that one might expect to become the seeds of their ruin. But the excitement of this novel lies in how it thwarts such expectations. This is not — or not merely — a domestic drama, or a portrait of masculine anger and perplexity. It is, above all, a thriller. Violence arrives as it does in life: incomprehensibly, and mid-sentence. Mauvignier generates suspense at the level of syntax. Christine is baking a cake, trying to finish before Marion returns from work, so immersed that she doesn’t hear the sounds coming from outside — “these rustles, these breaths, these steps”; she cracks eggs and mixes dough and doesn’t notice that her German shepherd has not returned to her side as usual, nor that in the stable outside a man in a blue tracksuit has tossed a steak to the dog, just as the dog doesn’t notice that the stranger is now approaching from behind, gripping a knife. The sentence shuttles with contrapuntal agitation between Christine in the kitchen and the bloody killing in the stable, and suddenly the inhabitants of Three Lone Girls are in a very different sort of story than they thought they were.
Two other men join the first, stalking the grounds. As darkness falls, they take Christine hostage, then Ida, then Patrice. The rest of the novel — there are still several hundred pages remaining — teeters on a knife’s edge between savagery and tedium, thriller and anti-thriller. Mauvignier simultaneously embraces the conventions of the genre and subverts them to the point of absurdity. Christine feels intensely aware that the words and commands used by the attackers seem “as false as the script of a made-for-TV movie or an American series,” and that every thought in her own mind “belongs only to a genre bloated with clichés.” Such reflections are more than mere winking metafictional commentary. They capture the uncanny, unassimilable quality of terror not as it is narrated but as it is felt.
Why have these men come? What do they want? It soon becomes clear that their presence has nothing to do with Patrice’s secret life, nor with the epistolary threats against Christine. They’re ghosts from Marion’s past, on a twisted quest for revenge. “You really thought we’d forget you?” they say, when she finally arrives for dinner. The great betrayal of marriage is meant to happen gradually, a slow-drip across the decades: the unraveling of all the lies people tell themselves about their spouses. But sometimes an evening is all it takes.
The Birthday Party is a chilling, masterful work. It dwells in that dim, haunted space between violence and mundanity, repression and revelation — that rare thing, a genre-bending novel that sacrifices neither its literary merits nor its pulpy thrills. It has bitter truths to tell: solitude is no escape from the petulance and violence of men; no matter how well you compartmentalize your life’s contradictions, you will one day be called to account; self-hatred will make you scorn those who love you, the fools; the greatest horror is other people; your final confessions will come too late; the past is never buried; the dead will be raised.
Charlie Lee is an assistant editor at Harper's Magazine.