One of the best fiction books I’ve read so far this year came as a complete surprise, as they so often do. You may recall that several weeks ago, I reviewed the fictional life story of a Hollywood actress in the great era of the studio, and found it charming and entertaining and yet somehow conventional? Well, Beatrice Hitchman’s Petite Mort begins on similar turf, yet takes the story of her aspiring silver screen actress to extraordinary and unexpected places. It’s no coincidence that every time I picked the book up, I misread the author’s name as ‘Hitchcock’. This is a story of ambition, passion, intrigue and suspense, highly compelling and continually surprising.
The story begins in 1967 with the discovery of an old reel of film, thought to have been destroyed in a fire at the Pathé studios many years ago. On closer inspection, the film has been tampered with and a significant section of the silent movie is missing. The journalist Juliette Blanc sets out to solve the mystery it presents by tracking down the featured actress, Adèle Roux, now an elderly woman. As she interviews Adèle, so a strange tale unfolds. Adèle began her life in poverty, a peasant girl from an unhappy family who was transfixed by the screening of an early film in her village and determined to escape the provinces and make her way into the movies. Arriving in Paris with little but hope to sustain her, she finds cheap accommodation with other women down on their luck and, after concerted efforts on her part, an audition on which she pins her future. But the audition ends in failure, and only shows her the extent of the obstacles she will have to overcome. There is some compensation, however: one of the important film producers, André Durand, offers her a job in the costume department with the perk of becoming his lover thrown in for good measure. Determined to seize every opportunity, Adèle accepts, transferring her thwarted ambition onto the affair as her gateway to stardom. It is only when she meets Durand’s wife, the glamorous but unstable Terpsichore (Luce is her real name), that Adèle really begins to see where her destiny lies.
It’s the structure of this novel that most impressed me. One the one hand, the main arc of the narrative is subject to repeated twists and turns. Every time I thought this story was going to travel in a direction I anticipated, I was proved wrong. But on the other hand, the use of lots of small flashbacks to provide the back stories for the main characters builds up depth and insight and never became confusing. The deftness with which Beatrice Hitchman handles three or four ongoing storylines in some sections of the novel is quite exciting. The period detail is utterly compelling, too; scenes wrap the reader up in the Paris of 1913 or the stultifying heat of 19th century Louisiana with a power of evocation that made me think very much of Sarah Waters (the plotting was similar, too). The only part I guessed correctly was the final twist in the epilogue, but I was already thinking Hitchcock-ish thoughts by this point and I have, after all, read an awful lot of books. I had had so many surprises lavished upon me already that it didn’t matter in the least.
I don’t want to say any more about this novel as I think it’s best enjoyed without too many expectations. But I think Beatrice Hitchmans is an extremely talented writer and I’ll certainly be reading whatever she writes next.