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And Their Children After Them: Disaffected youth in 1990s France

Review: Nicolas Mathieu’s portrait of ennui and class in a changing nation is exceptional

And Their Children After Them
And Their Children After Them
Author: Nicolas Mathieu
ISBN-13: 978-1529303827
Publisher: Sceptre
Guideline Price: £16.99

It’s a good job teenagers are so bloody miserable or a whole genre of literature would have to be abandoned for ever. There’d be no Outsiders, no Catcher in the Rye; John Green would be out of a job. When Albert Camus published L’Étranger in 1942, French readers were gripped by the book’s audacious blend of youth and racial discord.

There are echoes of Camus’s classic in Nicolas Mathieu’s second novel, which won France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt. Not only is it steeped in as much tension and violence as its literary precursor, but it’s also as good an account of disaffected youth as I’ve read in a long time.

The novel is set across six years, from summer 1992 to summer 1998, ending a few days before Les Bleus’ triumph at the World Cup, and explores the struggles of a group of young people from the heart of puberty at 14 to their realisation, at 20, that the world does not hold out a welcoming hand for everyone.

It doesn’t help that they’re not interested in anything but sex, alcohol and motorcycles. They don’t read books or watch movies. They have troubled relationships with their parents. Their lives are utterly joyless but they struggle on, waiting for something, anything, nothing. But Mathieu builds the lives of these bored youngsters with such attention and authenticity that the reader truly cares about them.


Mathieu creates a scene so taut that it comes close to snapping, but he's too good a writer to allow this to happen

When we first meet Anthony, his reticence with girls is equalled only by his obsession with them. He drinks them in with every look, even though they barely notice him. Hanging out with his older cousin, he cruises beaches, gets into trouble and tries to befriend the cool kids. In order to attend a party some distance from home, he steals his father’s motorbike, the catalyst for an extraordinary amount of trauma and suffering over the years to come.

His counterpoint is Hacine, whose family immigrated to France when he was a boy. There’s an ongoing feeling that they could be good friends were it not for the fact that every time their paths cross, something terrible happens.

Their personal rivalry, made worse by the actions of Anthony’s father, is the axis around which the novel turns and, at its climax, Mathieu creates a scene so taut that it comes close to snapping, but he’s too good a writer to allow this to happen. Still, one reads with dread, conscious of how the boy’s rash actions can only lead to disaster.

Changing France

The backdrop to these teenage misadventures is a changing France. The country is going through a process of deindustrialisation, jobs are scarce and those that are available are not the stuff of dreams. The characters are oblivious to this at 14 but it’s a short sprint to 20, when they’re already in debt, fathering children and utterly at a loss as to how they’ve suddenly become grown-ups.

The latter section of the book is set during that last triumphant week of the World Cup, when there’s a common belief that if the country can achieve something glorious, then so can its people. Racial barriers temporarily collapse due to the multi-ethnic nature of the football team and even the National Front closes its doors, fearing the antagonism of a people that that has not been so united since the end of the war.

When the crowds gather in bars, old enmities are forgotten, but Mathieu teases us by bringing the action to an end a few days before the trophy is captured.

It reminded me of what it was like to be a teenager, fearful that the Fates have you in their crosshairs

This is a deeply felt novel, filled with characters that demand the empathy of the reader. It’s not always easy; they can be selfish and too quick to anger. Their actions cause trouble for everyone around them, while they often slip away, waiting for the mess they’ve created to die down. But Mathieu understands this environment and is sympathetic to their struggles. There are no villains in the book but there is a deep sense of humanity in all its flaws.

It’s easy to see why And Their Children After Them won so many awards in its native France. It’s an exceptional portrait of youth, ennui and class divide. It reminded me of what it was like to be a teenager, fearful that the Fates have you in their crosshairs, and that the only way to survive is to be smarter, quicker and stronger than them. And, even then, it might not be enough.

John Boyne’s new novel, A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom, will be published by Doubleday in July

John Boyne

John Boyne

John Boyne, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a novelist and critic