The whirlwind of life

Heloïse est chauve by Emilie de Turckheim. Not translated into English, unlucky non-French readers…

Let’s rewind a bit. A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about Promising French Women Writers and eventually decided to read Héloïse est chauve by Emilie de Turckheim, although it wasn’t my first choice among the titles listed in this entry. As we say in French: Seuls les imbéciles ne changent pas d’avisi.

My fear came from the title, as Héloïse est chauve means Héloïse is bald and I immediately pictured a book about breast cancer. (Btw, I’m not the only one, I told someone I was reading Héloïse est chauve and the reply was “Is it about cancer?”). No, it’s not about cancer but the book title might be a put off.

It’s actually the first sentence of the novel and Héloïse is bald because she’s only five-month-old. It’s Saint Nicolas’s day and the whole family is gathered at Jeanne’s the matriarch of the family. She has two daughters, Violette and Mirabelle. I was caught from the start. I have to say that a novel that starts with a St Nicolas evening and a character named Mirabelle can only go straight to the heart of a native from Lorraine. For my foreign friends, St Nicolas’s Day is on December 6th, and only people from Alsace-Lorraine celebrate it in France. A “mirabelle” is a yellow plum that grows in this region; in Metz, Lorraine, there is a Mirabelle Festival every year. It’s very unlikely that a French writer opens a book like this.

Back to the book. Héloïse is in her craddle and falls in love with Dr Lawrence Calvagh, who is forty years old, half Irish-half French (an explosive mix?) and a close friend of the family. Actually, he dated Mirabelle and had an affair with Violette but he’s still married to Fleur. Lawrence is a paediatrician and a Don Juan. But Héloïse is a passionate and persistent lover and the novel is about their incredible love story, intertwined with the story of the family. Héloïse is an unusual character, she’s as passionate as the famous medieval eponymous heroin. She’s artistic and becomes a photographer à la Cindy Sherman or Gilbert and George.

It’s hard for me to give back the flavour of this novel, because the style is so crucial and the characters so strange. I’ll shower you with adjectives. It’s refreshing, odd, unseen, touching, pleasant, poetic, crude, inventive, international, incredible and yet plausible. In a word, quirky.

Emilie de Turckheim has a voice, a new and personal voice and her style is musical. I could hear rhythm and change of pace. Sometimes it races and clinks like the noise of a woman in a hurry, walking down a tiled hall with high heeled shoes. Sometimes it murmurs like a woman tiptoeing in with slippers in someone else’s soul. Her turn of phrases are her own, she makes a creative and unaffected use of the French language. I enjoyed the descriptions of Héloïse’s photo exhibitions, the moments in the family house in Corsica, the chapter when the authorities empty the Turtle Pond in Central Park. Héloïse is bald, the title says. I’d say she’s bold. All the time. Pushing the limits, going after what she wants, disregarding etiquette and customs. Let me help you discover her:

Elle a un don pour l’idéal excès. Ses colères, ses baisers, ses idées finement hachées, ses plaisirs de volcan, tout est à l’excès. Héloïse, habitante modèle de la minute et de la seconde, de la stupeur de l’instant. Sa peau imminente, ses caresses, sa voix mineure, éolienne. Sa façon ingénue et impérieuse de dire: Je t’aime depuis que je suis née! Et ses cheveux de ruche.

She has a gift for the ideal excess. Her angers, her kisses, her finely-chopped ideas, her volcano pleasures, everything is excessive. Héloïse, model inhabitant of the minute and the second, of the stupor of the instant. Her imminent skin, her caresses and her voice on a minor key, aeolian. Her naïve and commanding way of saying: I’ve loved you since I was born! And her hair like a beehive.

It sounds crazy but everything holds well together – I enjoyed the ending. The narrative changes of voice and gives several perspectives. It’s a find, really. Does someone know an Anglophone publisher who could translate her and bring this novel to you?

PS: I apologise to Emilie de Turckheim for the poor translation of her prose. The good news though is that most of the regular readers of this blog can read the original and won’t depend on my translation.

iOnly idiots never change their mind

  1. April 14, 2012 at 10:00 pm

    Hi Emma, I loved the way you describe her writing style as musical! That comes across from the extract too. It sounds like an interesting novel. As for an Anglophone publisher, Peirene Press comes to mind immediately, but they only publish short novels of 100 to 150 pages. How long is this one?


    • April 14, 2012 at 10:08 pm

      It’s a nice book, she has something. It’s probably too early to say for sure that she’s talented but she was born in 1980 and it’s already her fifth novel published.

      It’s 220 pages long, too long for Pereine Press but this kind of style and story seems in their range of interest, I think.


      • April 14, 2012 at 10:32 pm

        That’s good going – five novels by 32. She could have a long career ahead of her. Yes, the style does seem very Peirene, but too long – maybe they’ll pick up another one.


        • April 14, 2012 at 11:17 pm

          Les Pendus is only 174 pages long, Les Amants terrestres is 182 pages.
          Le Joli mois de mai is 124 pages long.
          So maybe…


  2. April 14, 2012 at 10:29 pm

    Is it in print in English? I run book clubs with an international emphasis and am always looking for books.



    • April 14, 2012 at 10:31 pm

      As mentioned in the introduction and the conclusion, no, it’s not.


  3. April 15, 2012 at 12:59 am

    I could see Europa Editions falling for this one, Emma. Would you hazard a guess as to whether I’d like this?


    • April 15, 2012 at 9:32 am

      I’m not sure you’d like it but if I had to bet, I’d say yes. It’s not conventional romance or romantic comedy at all.
      Perhaps you could try Amélie Nothomb first.


  4. April 15, 2012 at 10:23 am

    I don’t like Amélie Nothomb. If it’s anything like that… I’m intrigued and at the same time I’m absolutely not sure I would like it. I like what she wrote about writing it in her comment and some of that energy seems to be in the book. I can really not say what makes me hesitate to buy it. I’m too curious so will certainly end up redaing it sooner or later.
    One of her books has been translated into German.


    • April 15, 2012 at 10:35 am

      I think you’d like it. I’m glad I managed to give back the energy of the book because it is full of energy. Héloïse isn’t of the pining and weeping kind. She’s of the pining and acting kind.

      I’ve seen that one of her books has been translated into German.


      • April 15, 2012 at 10:59 am

        Yes, you captured that energy well and it feels exhilarting that’s why I will give it a chance some day.


  5. April 16, 2012 at 10:34 pm

    Peirene do sound a good fit (and they don’t always insist on short titles), otherwise Europa do soound the people for it.

    It sounds very good, but I’m overbooked presently (and can’t read French). It clearly inspired you though, it comes through in your review.


    • April 16, 2012 at 11:07 pm

      Thanks. I might try to drop a message on Pereine’s site.

      I know you can’t read French and are really busy. Perhaps her book will be translated one day. Meanwhile, there is still Proust!


      • April 17, 2012 at 1:01 pm

        I’ve not forgotten Proust! My reading schedule this year though has been so terrible so far I’d like to get a few shorter works under my belt, get back in the swing of things.


  6. April 20, 2012 at 11:50 pm

    I saw this book around when I was last in Paris and almost picked it up, but like you assumed the worst about the title (as The Boy in the Striped Pajamas might warn us). But this sounds like it could be just the thing to help shake me out of the wretched state wrought by the most recent work I read by a Promising French Woman Writer, Véronique Olmi’s inordinately grim Beside the Sea.


    • April 21, 2012 at 6:48 pm

      I see I’m not the only one with that reaction. It’s not grim at all; it’s worth reading.

      I have Olmi’s book at home but I’ve read so many times that it’s bleak that every time I take it from the shelf, I think “next time” and I put it back on the shelf.


      • April 21, 2012 at 7:03 pm

        The Olmi is almost post-bleak. We need new words. It is also, however, good.


        • April 21, 2012 at 7:07 pm

          Oh dear, “post-bleak” This isn’t encouraging. To be read in sunny weather, in holiday, not during rainy days and stressed by work like right now.
          Are you in the office again?


          • April 21, 2012 at 7:11 pm

            On a call since 8am this morning.

            Regarding the Olmi, embrace the misery. Read it on a grey day with rain outside.

            It is genuinely very good, which is the important thing.


            • April 21, 2012 at 7:16 pm

              On a call? Like when they need a lawyer at the police station when they catch someone? Or because you have a deadline to meet?

              I know it’s a good book. I tend to shy away from embracing the misery. I’d rather look up from the book and remember I’m not there with the characters.


              • April 21, 2012 at 7:20 pm

                Conference call with clients and counterparties. We have a deadline so pushing through the documents.

                If you like to look up and escape, then definitely sunshine.


              • April 21, 2012 at 7:26 pm

                All my best wishes for the Saturday at work. In French we say “Bon courage”, which is “Good Luck” according to the dictionary but the English lacks the genuine sympathy underlying in “Bon courage”. Luck has nothing to do with courage but more with enduring…


          • April 22, 2012 at 12:33 am

            “Post-bleak” is good – as is Olmi’s novel, as Max points out, if you can ever get past the next “next time.”


            • April 22, 2012 at 10:44 am

              I’ll try to read it next summer.


  7. April 27, 2012 at 11:39 am

    Nice review, Emma! Have been following Emilie de Turckheim on your blog for a while and so it is nice to know that you read her book and liked it. I liked very much what you said about Emilie’s voice and style – “Sometimes it races and clinks like the noise of a woman in a hurry, walking down a tiled hall with high heeled shoes. Sometimes it murmurs like a woman tiptoeing in with slippers in someone else’s soul.” – so beautifully put!


    • April 27, 2012 at 11:41 am

      I forgot to mention one more thing. The yellow plum you mentioned made me remember a scene from the movie version of ‘Perfume’ where a girl is peeling the skin of yellow plums. I have never seen yellow plums before.


      • April 28, 2012 at 2:57 pm

        Mirabelles are small plums (a bit bigger than cherries) very sweet and tasty. There make marvellous jams and pies. They grow in Lorraine mostly.


    • April 28, 2012 at 2:55 pm

      I really enjoyed her book and what she says about it is true. She forgot to say how well-written it is…


  8. emilie de turckheim
    May 7, 2012 at 11:55 am

    Hello Emma. For your non-French readers friends : Heloise est chauve will be published in english ! (Jonathan Cape / Random House)


    • May 7, 2012 at 7:22 pm


      Great news, thanks for sharing and dropping by again.

      I hope I won you readers, I enjoyed your book.


  9. emilie de turckheim
    May 10, 2012 at 4:55 pm

    Thank you Emma ! And thank you twice because it’s partly thanks to you ! I sent your review to my publisher and she then sent it to the English publisher… who was still wondering whether he should buy my novel or not… and who eventually said “let’s do it!” the very same day ! (i’m not kidding)


    • May 10, 2012 at 9:50 pm

      This is a great story. You don’t see me, but I’ve got a huge grin on my face, reading this. I’m really glad for you.


  10. March 2, 2014 at 11:13 pm

    Good news : I emailed Emilie de Turckheim to enquire after the translation of Héloïse est chauve. It will be published by Jonathan Cape and should be released next year!


  1. February 10, 2014 at 5:42 pm
  2. January 10, 2015 at 9:00 am
  3. March 7, 2015 at 6:21 pm

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