La Daronne by Hannelore Cayre

La Daronne by Hannelore Cayre. (2017) French literature, not available in English. (Yet)

La Daronne by Hannelore Cayre will probably end up on my 2018 best of. Meet Patience Portefeux, 53, a widow with two grown-up daughters, with a boyfriend in the police force, and a mother in a nursing home. She’s an underpaid translator from the Arab for the French department of Justice.

As a translator and interpret, Patience spends hours and hours translating and transcribing conversations between drug dealers and other criminals. She also spends hours at the Law Courts, assisting during hearings and questionings. She struggles financially: her daughters are in university, the nursing home costs an arm and a leg, her job pays indemnities instead of wages, which means no retirement money.

So, one day, she seizes an opportunity and crosses the red line and uses what she hears during her job to hijack a huge quantity of marijuana. She becomes La Daronne, the boss of a small dealing network. (In French, daronne is a slang word to say Ma.)

I was waiting for the paperback edition to read La Daronne, a book that won a prize at Quais du Polar last year. I started to read it while I was standing in line at this year’s festival. I can’t tell you how long I waited, I was too engrossed in the story to complain or get impatient. I was waiting for Hannelore Cayre to arrive and sign her books. We chatted a little bit, she was stunned by the line of readers waiting for her. But after reading La Daronne, I’m not surprised that readers wanted to meet her.

Like I said, I was caught in her book from the first pages. Everything drew me in: Patience’s sharp tone, her unusual background, the other characters around her, the original story and the plausibility of it. Contrary to Arctic Chill, this plot doesn’t sound like déjà vu.

Patience sounds real. She has the problems of her age: she’s sandwiched between university costs and nursing home costs, between her daughters and taking care of her ageing mother. The descriptions of the nursing home are vivid, spot on, crude but without pathos. I loved Patience’s irreverence. Political politeness is not her middle name and I loved it. See an example:

J’ai mis une bonne semaine à la repérer [une aide-soignante] vu que dans mouroirs, c’est comme dans les hôpitaux ou les crèches : il n’y a pratiquement que des Noires et des Arabes qui y travaillent. Racistes de tout bord, sachez que la première et la dernière personne qui vous nourrira à la cuillère et qui lavera vos parties intimes est une femme que vous méprisez ! It took me a week to spot her [a nursing auxiliary] because in old people’s houses, it’s like in hospitals and creches: almost all the employees working there are Blacks or Arabs. Racists of all sides, you’d better know that the first and the last person who will feed you with a spoon and wash your private parts is a woman you despise!

If you want to imagine the tone of this book, its dark humor, its bluntness and its exploration of French society’s dirty corners, think of Apocalypse Baby by Virginie Despentes.

La Daronne is a fast-paced trip into Patience’s life but also a journey into the quotidian of small criminality seen from all sides: the marijuana drug dealers’ ecosystem, the policemen’s never-ending work to catch them and the judicial system to judge them.

Hannelore Cayre is a criminal lawyer. She knows perfectly the ins and outs of the French judicial system. What she writes about the translators’ status is true. And so shocking. Imagine that the Department of Justice, the one in charge to enforce the laws of this country cannot afford to pay social charges on the translators’ work and found a trick to avoid paying them. How is that even possible? Especially when you know that private companies have to check every six months that the suppliers with which they do more than 5000 euros of business per year have paid their social security charges. Imagine the paperwork. And the same politicians who impose these useless checks to the private sector turn a blind eye on the Department of Justice employing only freelances to avoid social costs because of budget issues? Truly, I’m ashamed of the way this country treats its judicial system and of how little money we put in this crucial pillar of our democracy.

But back to Patience. Knowing all this, can we really judge her for crossing moral lines? Hannelore Cayre puts an unflattering light on this corner of our world. It’s eye opening, refreshing, new and engaging. This is the real France, not the postcard one.

It’s a Translation Tragedy book, at least for the moment. I saw that her previous books have been translated into German, this one might make it too.

A last quote, just for the pleasure of it.

Dehors, c’était l’automne. Il pleuvait tous les jours comme sur les planètes inhospitalières des films de SF, alors qu’à la télé les infos diffusaient des reportages pour apprendre aux gens à faire des garrots en cas de membre arraché par une bombe. Outside it was autumn. It rained every day like in inhospitable planets in SF movies. On TV, the news flash broadcasted reportages about how to do a tourniquet in case someone lost a member during a bombing.

Welcome to France after the Islamic terrorist attacks…

  1. May 7, 2018 at 8:29 am

    It does sound good. Let’s hope it gets picked up for translation at some point. Your comments about the French judicial system made me think of the TV series Engrenages (Spiral) which I’m currently re-watching. I could imagine elements of this book fitting very well in that context.


    • May 8, 2018 at 9:07 am

      It has won two prizes here, hopefully it’ll get translated.

      I’m afraid I haven’t seen Engrenages but I’ve heard it’s very good.

      I want to read Code 93 by Olivier Norek, he was in the police force, I’m sure his book is interesting.


  2. May 9, 2018 at 12:34 am

    Sounds as though it would make a good TV series.


  3. May 9, 2018 at 3:08 pm

    This sounds excellent.


    • May 9, 2018 at 9:17 pm

      I think you’ll like it and lucky you, you can read in French!


  4. May 9, 2018 at 5:59 pm

    Engrenages is great, particularly after the first season which is a bit sensational (it settles down and the characters get a bit more room to breathe).

    This also sounds great, so hopefully it’ll get translated into German and eventually English.

    Also, coming to this from your Arctic Chill review, this does sound original. It sounds like it’s about our world, now, not yet another unhappy police officer investigating an unlikely murder.


    • May 9, 2018 at 9:28 pm

      I really hope it gets translated because it is unusual. Patience had strange parents but her world is ours. I really liked that Hannelore Cayre makes us see a part of our society that is usually hidden from us.

      I read Arctic Chill after this one and after another book by Craig Johnson and the comparison wasn’t in favour of Indridason. He’s like Patterson to me, no need to try another one.


  5. January 7, 2019 at 10:06 am

    Hello – terrific review. I thought you might like to know that this particular ‘Translation Tragedy’ has been averted: we’re publishing LA DARONNE (as ‘The Godmother’) in the UK later this year, probably in September.


    • January 7, 2019 at 2:01 pm

      Great news! It’s such a fantastic book.

      I also learnt that another of the untranslated novels I’ve read in 2018 is now available in English.
      I’m thinking about checking out if there are others like this.

      PS : May I suggest to translate Spada by Bogdan Teodorescu? Here’s my billet


  6. January 14, 2019 at 12:00 am

    I came to see who the translation is going to be published by. I see the answer from one of the comments above. Thanks for the tip. I’m sure I’ll like this


    • January 14, 2019 at 12:08 am

      I’m sure you will, it’s definitely your kind of book. I can’t wait to read your review.


  7. its.sims
    November 6, 2019 at 3:03 am

    I enjoyed the book but could not pick up on the significance of the short story she tells at the end, what did you think it was referring to?


    • November 11, 2019 at 9:24 pm

      Hello and welcome to Book Around the Corner.

      About the story: the old guys are sleepy and when their leader says “mambo”, they find new energy to play.
      She says Mambo : she will enjoy life with renewed energy.

      That’s how I understand the ending.


  1. March 24, 2021 at 9:19 pm

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