The story is set in Saigon in the 1930s, and describes the tumultuous affair between a relatively poor adolescent French girl and her wealthy, older Chinese lover. Interspersed between details of their clandestine meetings are descriptions of the unnamed narrator’s mother – headmistress of a girls’ high school and prone to bouts of depression, and her wayward brothers.
The parallels between Duras’s life and the novel are clear – she was born in Saigon and did have a wealthy, older, Chinese lover. Furthermore, Duras’s mother was a headmistress; her father was absent; and she spent time studying in Paris.
The novel is praised for spare prose, the portrayal of a forbidden relationship and the theme of finding identity. While those things may exist, for the most part I was unmoved by the story. The switching back-and-forth in time, and the narrator’s detached, fragmented voice did little to hook me.
The novel highlights the emotions associated with first love – when we’re experiencing it we feel that nothing will ever compare but at the same time, we know that there will be others in the future, that the first is not the ‘one and only’.
“She doesn’t feel anything in particular, no hate, no repugnance either, so probably it’s already desire. But she doesn’t know it.”
You can’t compare first love (is it real love?), yet it often becomes a benchmark for future relationships. Duras hints at this issue in relation to her ‘characters’ although doesn’t fully address it – some readers will enjoy filling the gaps. I didn’t. What Duras does make clear is that while her affair cost her innocence, she gained confidence, which ultimately changed the course of her life (easy to simplify when you’re looking back decades later).
2/5 Meh… I wonder if my book group will reach a different conclusion?
“For the past three years white men, too, have been looking at me in the streets, and my mother’s men friends have been kindly asking me to have tea with them while their wives are out playing tennis at the Sporting club.”