As with his 2010 novella, Eat Him if You Like, cult French novelist, Jean Teule once more takes his inspiration from the darker events of French History with The Poisoning Angel, a fictional work based around the life of France’s most prolific serial poisoner, Helene Jegado.
In other hands, this disturbing tale could have been relentlessly grim and po-faced. Jegado killed at least 36 people, and may have been responsible for many more un-diagnosed poisonings. But Teule, as he has proved several times now, never does anything in a straight forward manner and imbues his narrative with a sense of the surreal that makes one think of the films of the Coen Brothers in its capacity to balance the horror of its subject with an oddly disconnected humour that highlights the madness of human behaviour.
Beginning in the village of Plouhinec, we meet the young Jegado, as she gathers herbs with her mother. The local women spy a cart approaching and believe that it is the vessel of the Ankou, the spirit of death. They attack the owners of the cart – a pair of wigmakers from Normandy – and send them packing. Jegado, whom her mother calls Thunderflower, explains the nature of the Ankou to her child. In short order, Thunderflower becomes obsessed with the Ankou and pledges herself to his service. As she grows older, she kills almost on a whim. Whether her own or the Ankou’s becomes difficult to say.
The book is deliberately cyclical, with Helene appearing somewhere, acting strangely, murdering her victims and then vanishing once more. Along the way, the Norman wigmakers appear, bemoaning that they ever came to Brittany, like a bemused Greek chorus or a pair of characters who have wandered onto the page from a Tom Stoppard play. The book runs the danger of that repetition becoming monotonous, but Teule pulls it back with the final act where Helene faces the consequences of her actions and, and comment is passed on the oddities of the age, including the idea of phrenology as a method for determining a person’s capacity for evil acts.
Translated by Melanie Florence, Teule’s prose is deceptively simple, if occasionally muddled as characters talk over each other and the point of view slips on occasion from Thunderflower to others observing her behaviour. However, this only adds to the air of oddity that is clearly an intentional aspect of Tuele’s own style. The resultant novel is gruesomely fascinating, if occasionally repetitive, and quite unlike anything else you’ll read this year. Like Thunderflower’s cooking, The Poisoning Angel won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it’s a definite feast for fans of black humour and those (like myself) already converted to Teule’s unusual and unsettling world view.
Although I spend much of my time reading for edits rather than pleasure, I still try and fit in reading for fun. This occasional blog will record brief thoughts on some of the books I'm reading on my "off time"
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