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UV by Serge Joncour

August 30, 2015 15 comments

UV by Serge Joncour (2003) Translated by Adriana Hunter. French title: U.V.

Nul mieux qu’un loup sait deviner la faim d’un autre. No one is better skilled than a wolf to figure out someone else’s hunger.

Joncour_UVTime went away and I’m really late to write this billet about U.V. by Serge Joncour that I read back in June. It’s a French novella that will appeal to readers fond of crime fiction and books featuring people on vacation.

A bourgeois family is settled in their holiday home on an island in Brittany. The patriarch is there with his wife, their two grown-up daughters Julie and Vanessa, their grand-children and their son-in-law André-Pierre. It’s the second week of July and they’re waiting for Philip, the other child of the family who’s just spent 18 months in America. They don’t know when Philip will arrive but he’s never missed a 14th of July (Bastille Day) at the house. He’s the one in charge of the fireworks and they expect him to be there on time to organize the show.

When Boris shows up at the house, unannounced and saying he’s Philip’s friend, they assume he’s come a bit early and that Philip will be there shortly. They don’t know Boris but they welcome him into their home. He’s polite, charming, flirting a bit with Julie and Vanessa, bonding with their father, taking the kids on a boat… Philip entertains the family. He’s reckless and he’s a new addition to the group, providing fresh air and sweeping the boredom away. He seems happy to be there, building his nest in this foreign house:

Il y a toujours une gêne à se retrouver seul dans la maison des autres, un vague embarras. Boris n’avait jamais souffert de ce trouble, au contraire, il éprouvait même un certain plaisir à ouvrir un placard inconnu, à y découvrir une configuration particulière, voir un peu au-delà de la zone permise. It’s always uncomfortable to be alone in someone else’s house, it’s a bit embarrassing. Boris never suffered from that problem, quite the contrary. He felt a certain pleasure to open a stranger’s cupboard, to find out its particular setting, to see beyond the permitted zone.

André-Pierre remains weary of him, maybe because he knows and protects Philip’s secrets. He knows better than to take any of Philip’s friends at face value. And he doesn’t like Boris and his easy ways with this family.

André-Pierre se laissa ravaler par son canapé, réalisant comme une évidence que ce Boris, bien que parfait inconnu, avait su s’imposer en quarante-huit heures, en quarante-huit heures il était ici comme chez lui et marquait tout de son empreinte. André-Pierre let the sofa swallow him, realizing suddenly that this Boris, although a perfect stranger, had managed to impose himself in forty-eight hours. In forty-eight hours, he made himself at home here and was leaving his imprint everywhere.

Joncour_UV_EnglishWhere’s Philip? What has he done that only André-Pierre knows? Why is Boris worming himself into this house? What is he after? Serge Joncour builds up the suspense page after page in a scrumptious style. The reader keeps wondering, not if but when the drama will happen. There’s something murky in Philip’s absence, something unhealthy in Boris’s intrusion in this family. The relationships between the characters are tense, there is something explosive in the atmosphere, enhanced by the preparation of the fireworks for the 14th of July. Boris strives for effect and engages the family members in activities that seem innocent but are carried on with such intensity that they become dangerous. A walk on the beach at night, skinny dipping in the ocean, driving a boat too fast…Boris likes to live on edge, playing with fire, flirting with danger and stirring trouble, all behind an easy-going façade.

Joncour seems to invoke all the holy ghosts of the masters of suspense and bourgeois criticism: Hitchcock, Highsmith and Chabrol. It’s extremely well written, the plot is well conducted, the characters well drafted and yet I can’t say I loved UV. Things are excellent individually but didn’t mesh as well as they should have. Or maybe I read it at a wrong time.

Therefore I’d love to hear another opinion on this novella. If you’ve read it, please leave a comment, I’ll be happy to read your thoughts about it. (For French readers, leaving comments in French is not a problem). I’ll just add that UV was made into a film directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner in 2007; I haven’t seen it but if you have, let me know what you thought about it.

PS: A word about the characters’ names. I don’t know why Philip is spelled the English way and not the French one, Philippe. In case you’re wondering, it doesn’t come from the translator. And André-Pierre is really a bourgeois name that conveys conservatism.

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