The Lover by Marguerite Duras

Old favourites: Lucy Sweeney Byrne’s best loved books

The Lover was written when Duras was 70, and floats delicately in that soft, nebulous space between memoir and make-believe. Duras recreates the warm haze of the Saigon of her childhood so powerfully, steam rises from the pages.

It’s the story of a 15-year-old girl from a French family, embarking on a sexual relationship with the son of a Chinese millionaire, who becomes painfully enraptured with her. It contains a dazzling depiction of the immense power in which a woman can bathe when she’s the object of such adoration – a first-hand perspective rarely captured in writing, at least in my experience.

The girl, never named, only ever “she” or “I”, is almost disdainful of her lover, disgusted by his abject lust. She mistreats him, exposes him to the ridicule of her brothers. She doesn’t really care. She is barely yet a woman, blankly unconcerned, alive only in the present, and utterly ruthless, in that way only the young can be.

White colonisers

The Lover also offers an account of the world of the white colonisers, specifically of the women. The insights prove devastating;


“They dress just for the sake of dressing. They look at themselves. In the shade of their villas, they look at themselves for later on, they dream of romance, they already have huge wardrobes full of more dresses than they know what to do with, added together one by one like time, like the long days of waiting.”

In Rachel Kushner’s introduction, she aligns Duras herself with the content and craft of The Lover, saying: “Does it matter that she was sexy? In a sense, yes, because it allowed her to feed her insatiable need, so biographers report, for erotic attention, and to understand her way around desire, which is to say, around writing.”

At root, The Lover is a depiction of a beautiful, pure-yet-impure, agonising desire. There is nothing sweet or romantic about it. It is naive, grasping, on-one’s-knees love, told with a dispassion that could, I imagine, only be achieved with the 55-year delay in its writing.