Review: An Accident in August, Laurence Cossé

My half-assed, unenthusiastic effort to make myself love books in translation continues apace. Yes, I am aware that it is a very very half-assed effort indeed. No, I would probably not have done anything about it had not Europa contacted me to offer me a copy of An Accident in August for review. (Hey FTC! There’s a disclosure encased in that last sentence, if you care to look for it.)

On a late night in August 1997, Lou has a minor car accident. Minor for her: the car that sideswipes her crashes spectacularly, and Lou speeds off in terror. The next morning, she learns that the car that crashed was carrying Princess Diana (or, as the French very correctly call her, Lady Di) (I only know this from Amelie, y’all). Lou realizes that she sort of caused the accident, that she will be caught up in a media frenzy if she comes forward, that she will lose any semblance of a private life, forever, that she will be blamed and universally loathed for not stopping to help. And from there, her life falls apart.

I think I have said before that I find unbearable suspenseful stories in which people have done wicked deeds and are eaten alive by guilt and fear and are waiting waiting waiting to see if they will be found out. Macbeth is my favorite of the Shakespeare tragedies (though this may be attributable to its having been the first one I ever read; or to the “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech, which, goddamn, is just a magnificent piece of writing); The Secret History rocks my world each and every time I read it; and some third example to complete this ascending tricolon. (I can’t think of a third example. I love guilt books, is what I’m saying.) So in spite of the presence of my usual problems with books in translation, the maybe-will-get-caught stuff kept me reading and interested. Plus I am a fairly private person my own self, and I greatly sympathized with Lou’s terror of permanent, unrelenting media attention.

However, there were parts of the book that went a little slowly for my taste, and stopped me getting emotionally involved. I wanted Lou to confide in someone — let’s face it, what’s interesting about books (and life, dude) is interaction between characters, and there’s precious little of that in the first half of An Accident in August. We have very little opportunity to know who Lou is apart from her predicament, and that makes it hard to care. I didn’t know what the stakes were. What did she have to lose? Who were the people she loved, what were the things she enjoyed, what kind of life did she have? The book suffered by maintaining such a tight focus on the circumstances.

In spite of this and in spite of my translation-phobia, I enjoyed An Accident in August, and I am looking forward to Cossé’s other translated work by Europa, A Novel Bookstore. Up with books about bookstores! One day by God I will learn to love books in translation. YES. I. WILL.

An Accident in August will be published by Europa on 30 August 2011. Watch for it!