Wednesday, February 23, 2011

book review: Jezebel by Irene Nemirovsky


When you are first introduced to Gladys Eysenach she is a small old lady sitting in the dock in court charged with the murder of her young lover. The case seems to be open and shut and it's a question of getting the judge to be merciful in the sentence.

But as the focus of the story turns back in time to tell of how Gladys came to find herself going up to the top of society then down into the darkness of murder and a court case you wonder just whether or not you will feel sympathy for this woman.

Certinaly in the courtroom you feel the stirrings of pity although Gladys seems to have a pride that barbs but as you start to encounter her in the prime of her life that split between dislike and pity becomes harder to straddle.

Ultimately this is a story of vanity, fear of growing old and a damming inditement of a society that only values appearances. Once the wrinkles come and the true age is clear you are washed up. Or at least that's what Gladys thinks shoes she does everything she can to exploit her youthful beauty. She goes to extraordinary lengths to shave ten years off her birth certificate and her treatment of her daughter is bordering on the insane.

First she refuses to allow her daughter to marry for fear people will see hoer as an older woman capable of having a daughter of marriagable age. But when her daughter's fiance dies in the trenches Gladys is faced with the new challenge of becoming a grandmother.

Again she rejects the child not so much on the grounds of social disaster but because she is determined never to be called a grandmother.

As she wanders through life, getting ever more desperate to be loved and adored by men, it brings her closer to the moment when her real age could catch up with her. The way she seems to postpone that moment means that on reflection the court case goes in her favour more than you might have initially expected.

Nemirovsky is brilliant at characters and even when there is a select cast, as there is here, she delivers real depth. Add to that her ability to spring a few surprises on the reader and this packs more of a punch than you might expect.

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