The events of this novel take place over the course of one day, May 20th, as two lonely, troubled people make their way around Paris and the reader wills them to collide and connect. When Matilde wakes up early, recalling that a fortune teller has predicted a redemptive encounter for her that day, she is struck at first by the recognition of how low she has sunk, to cling to the support of mystics.
Quite the most powerful part of this novel is its portrait of bullying in the workplace. Mathilde has a good job in a marketing company and has enjoyed a harmonious relationship with her boss, Jacques, until the day that she unthinkingly contradicts him in a meeting with clients. From this point on, he stages a subtle but inexorable campaign of psychological attrition, undermining her confidence, belittling her to the rest of the company, gradually stripping her of her duties, her responsibilities, her self-esteem, until May 20th when she finds herself effectively sidelined altogether from her job. Mathilde’s cowardly colleagues pity her but lack the backbone to stand up for her, and Mathilde, still emotionally vulnerable from the loss of her husband, in desperate need of her job to support her family, finds her hands tied time and again, the words of the discussions she attempts to open up with him turned against her.
Meanwhile, on the streets of Paris, paramedic Thibault goes about his job of tending to its sick and unhappy citizens. Thibault has been in a deeply unfulfilling relationship with Lila and May 20th is the day following their break-up, an event that has cost him dearly, even though he knows it had to be done. I’ve found there was always a moment reading these novels when the irreconcilable Frenchness of them burst forth, and here, Thibault’s unhappiness stems from the fact that Lila uses him for sex but refuses a deeper emotional engagement. In Britain, that would be your average man’s dream relationship. But all hail the tender-heartedness of the French male, as Thibault struggles with his bleakness in the wake of his loss, more affected than he usually is by the pitiful people to whom he is trying to give medical aid.
The title of the novel in French is Les Heures Souterraines, which conveys more than the ‘Underground Time’ of the translation. Much as the metro features in both the stories of Mathilde and Thibault, the ‘underground’ nature of the narrative refers equally to the way their stories are composed through their private thoughts and responses. The narrative alternates between the viewpoints of each character, but remains located in an underground layer of their minds where streams of consciousness rise and swirl. Hence this is a book with scarcely any dialogue, but the prose is so slippery and supple that it doesn’t feel disquieting. Instead, the reader is drawn down deep into the minds of the protagonists, to experience the isolation of the individual at its basic level.
This is a melancholy novel which will resonante particularly with anyone who has suffered the misfortune of feeling trapped in a toxic workplace. It deserves to be applauded for such an accurate and poignant portrait of intimidation, which is a topic that is rarely treated in literature. Personally, I would have liked to see Mathilde defeat and humiliate her intolerable boss and string him out to dry, and then to fall rapturously in love with Thibault – the Hollywood ending, in other words. Instead, de Vigan offers something more realistic, more ambiguous and a tad anti-cathartic, which is a courageous choice on her part and shows her to have her finger on the pulse of the alienation of modern metropolitan living.
I thought this was an amazingly topical book and while, of course, iwould have loved to see her fight, from apurely psychlogical point of view that wasn’t possible anymore. I think she was too drained and I’m also afraid it is far more realistic that way. It’s unbelievable by the way how often this happens in companies.
I liked the way how the book followed the two protagonist from an eagle-eye perspective (is that the correct expression?)
Yes, I do agree with you. For psychological realism, Mathilde is in no position to fight back. And I was so glad to see the whole topic addressed – there aren’t enough novels about work as it is. Eagle-eye usually means flying high above the subject and looking down on it with precision. I’m not quite sure what you’d call this perspective, but I very much appreciated it!
I loved this book. And yes, it’s a French book, not an American one, so no unrealistic happy ending.
I thought her description of work as an executive in a multinational company extremely realistic and well-drawn.
The scenes in the metro are exceptional, accurate. I used to live in Paris and I remember this; the crowd, the heat, the way you speed up to catch your carriage, the anonimity.
Thibault’s voice was weaker than Mathilde’s but I enjoyed it too.
In a way, they both have a different experience of life in a big city.
You can find reviews on Caroline’s blog, on Guy’s and on mine. I read it last year and it stayed with me.
It’s such a long time since I was in the Paris metro! But I felt there was an impressive honesty and truthfulness about the whole novel. Am so glad you loved it and will look up your review – please do feel free to add a link here if you like.
As I was reading your post I was thinking that the book must have a happy ending after all that loss and misery. I am such an American in that respect I suppose even though I don’t require my books to have a happy ending, I you would say that this one does.
Ah well, I really would be giving too much away to say anything about the ending, because the reader is thinking about it right from the start! But bear in mind what I hoped for, and know it was not that! But this was still a very interesting novel. 🙂
What an intriguing read. From your vivid description, I can see its parallel as an indie artsy noir film, dark and deep.
Arti, what a great idea! It would make a really good movie.
It sounds sad! But now I will be prepared for the ending to make me a bit sad. The workplace bullying stuff sounds interesting — I always love (I hope this doesn’t say anything terrible about me) reading about people wearing other people down in that sort of subtle underminey way. I like how that sort of thing comes off quite chilling but mundanely so, if that makes sense.
Oh Jenny what you wrote there is pretty much a perfect description of what happens in the novel. And I did admire this portrait of bullying as it felt very real, very believable, and indeed very chilling.
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We read this in my French book group earlier this year and had quite an interesting discussion about it. I was the only one who wanted Mathilde to get revenge on her boss – even if I recognized how American it was of me to want this, the big slam-bang ending. I agree that de Vigan’s portrayal of bullying at work was absolutely harrowing. She does this very well. I cared a bit less about how she might connect with Thibault, as I really loved the parallel view of these two individuals and their discouragement.
Apparently, de Vigan’s memoir Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit is just amazing. About her life with a mentally ill mother (who was a famous or semi-famous journalist). It is her second memoir – the first is about her own troubles with an eating disorder. I’ve got both on my list ot read this year.