Family Secrets

Claire Messud
Claire Messud; drawing by David Levine

Claire Messud’s second novel centers on the year its heroine turns fifteen. Her name is Sagesse LaBasse and she lives on the Côte d’Azur, where her grandfather, a pied noir from Algeria, owns a hotel and runs it with the help of her father. Sagesse has a younger brother called Etienne, a slobbering, speechless, sweet-tempered creature strapped into a wheelchair. He was brain-damaged at birth, and Sagesse loves him. One day, she notices he has grown up: he has an erection. So she masturbates him and he comes. Afterward she feels she has done wrong. Not because of the incest:

The wrong…lay in the very awakening of Etienne to possibilities beyond his grasp, in the bitter and futile assertion of his humanness…. As a man, he would be consigned to conflict and despair far more profound than any I could know, and alone in a place where no one could hear.

Words, meaningless though they might ring, as wrongly as we may interpret them, are the only missiles with which we are equipped, which we can lob across the uncharted terrain between our souls…. My brother…lived like Friday before Crusoe, alone in his paradise, or in his hell, but not knowing it to be either—and now, with this sigh, with this relief, his body had communicated desire and been heard, and however my brother registered knowledge, he must know that it had, and, most terribly, would know when it remained, henceforth, unattended. Having been, beneath his sheet, unalone for even a moment, he would know forever more what it meant to be alone…. The wrong I had done, I realized, was to make my brother aware of his prison….

This is just one of the many unpredictable, shocking passages in Messud’s book; shocking, not because of the incest, but because of the irreversible tragedy it discloses in language that appears to have no regard for anything except getting its meaning across, getting to its destination by however convoluted and jolting a path.

Messud does not always write like that. Her style changes from one page to the next, and each new paragraph can be a surprise—regardless of the fact that the first-person narrator is always the twenty-five-year-old self writing from the present on the Upper West Side. “I am American now,” she begins the book, “but this wasn’t always so. I have been here a long time—six years at Columbia alone, and what seems an age before that. But in truth, until now I’ve lived, largely, inside.”

Sometimes she takes on her fifteen-year-old voice, talking the dismissive argot of a witty, observant, cynical adolescent who knows that “cool” is the most important word and the most important thing to be. Then there are lush—too lush—descriptions. For instance when Sagesse accompanies her mother to the market:

blushing mounds of peaches alongside plump and purple eggplants, exuberant fronded skirts of…

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