“What is a father? The notion of fatherhood is beyond the child. And how could it not be? Fathers, these days, are pretty thin on the ground. There was the Levy children’s father, but they didn’t see him much. The child has almost forgotten him now. The few other children in the building, the concierge’s daughter, for example, don’t have one: he’s a prisoner, or dead, like the father of the two boys on the first floor. Even the child’s mother is fatherless: the grandmother’s husband is someone they never new.
Fathers are found in fairy tales, and they’re always slightly unreal and not very kind. Or else they’re dead, distant, weak, and much less interesting than their daughters and their sons, who are brimming with courage, spirit and good looks.”
This briefest of novels – “Her Father’s Daughter” – is part of Peirene Press’s “Fairy Tale Series”, and though the categorization’s fit is subtle, it is, in fact, accurate. Sizun, writing in French, spins a tale of a young girl, enthralled by her mother and dismissive of her absent father, who is imprisoned during World War II.
“She’s called France, the child is, France like the country. But no one remembers that now. No one ever calls her by that name, even though it was chosen, duty-bound by the war. They just call her ‘the child’, that’s enough. As for calling her name to summon her, to make her come back, that never happens: the child is always there, close by, under her mother’s feet, or consumed with waiting for her. Sometimes, though, her mother gently calls her ‘darling’, ‘my darling’, and it’s not a summons but a tender form of address. She doesn’t pronounce her actual name. Doesn’t use it. It’s only on paper.”
Our omniscient narrator knows France’s inner thoughts and quietly interprets her every move. France is a child given a long leash, a wide berth, untoward freedom. Whether marking the walls with crayons or throwing tantrums, her every whim is acted on and acted out. At first, France declares her mother’s lassitude as a sign of her unwavering devotion and love.
“The child and her mother love nothing more than having fun. Laughing together. Even if sometimes the mother is overcome with sadness and cries in that terrifying way or, and this is worse, stops talking altogether. Is suddenly reduced to stubborn, incomprehensible silence.”
But the knowing reader and any consumer of fairy tales knows all too well that her mother’s distraction teeters dangerously close to disinterest, and that this story, too, will have a dramatic shift of alliances.
Fiercely jealous and deeply devoted to her mother, France’s loyalty, like that of many children too young to be steadfast, is for sale. When her father is eventually released from prison and allowed to return home, France eyes him with great suspicion and alarm. She is, initially, violently opposed to her mother’s showing any affection for this ‘stranger’ of a man.
“It is strange for the child to discover disenchantment, jealousy. Feelings she couldn’t put a name to, but which hurt inside your stomach, and your heart. The child can see she’s no longer the object of her mother’s adoration. The loved one is her father. He’s called ‘darling’ now, not her. He’s looked at, as she was before, with that tender, slightly anxious expression, not her. He’s admired. Not her. Not any more.”
Gradually, however, France decides to answer her mother’s treason with betrayal of her own. As she works her way into her father’s heart, we see the insidious nature of jealousy, the fickle nature of childhood alliances, and the depth of consequence for seemingly simple actions.
Sizun’s writing, and its translation by Adriana Hunter, is clipped and distant yet strangely powerful. It is spare and minimalist, forcing the reader to make leaps and feel clever for reading between the lines. “Her Father’s Daughter” reads like someone’s bedtime story, told in hushed tones to make up a backstory for a striking black and white photograph. It was really quite something to experience.
Thank you to Peirene Press for the complimentary copy in exchange for a fair and honest review.