The Mystery of Henri Pick by David Foenkinos (Pushkin)

“In 1971, the American writer Richard Brautigan published a quirky love story about a male librarian and a young woman with a spectacular body.”

A PROPER mystery of the kind that perhaps might not have even been translated into English had Walter not chosen it as the first of his book endorsements following on from his TV tie-ins for foreign films at Channel 4. If you have a tricky to pronounce surname like Foekinos, Walter is a bit of a boon. Walter himself has a slightly tricky last name too by way of Luzzolino while Foekinos, who has 14 novels and films of note to his name in France, enjoys the more familiar David.

This is a literary mystery but plays out more like a board game, much of the pleasure is in considering each twist and turn, not so much a page turner as page contemplater.

In brief, star editor falls for favourite author. They decamp to Brittany and discover a lost masterpiece, written apparently in the local pizzeria. The Henri Pick of the title will be their Vivian Maier, the French nanny in Chicago whose brilliant photography only came to light after her death in 2009.

“Pick’s novel…echoes the fantasy of being somebody else, the unsuspected superhero, the ordinary seeming man whose secret is that he possesses an imperceptible literary sensibility”.

It is a light touch rom com – the back cover tells me it is sparkling, mischievous, satirical. Walter says briefly it contains: Paris, Intrigue and Desire, none of which arrive in the first 200 pages. It is laced with literary references, so even the Pushkin Press publishers get a name check via Pushkin the writer appearing in the said lost masterpiece…. And yes there really was a Richard Brautigan, who did publish a story in 1971…and quite a character he was too. There is some hat tipping to the Brautigan style of black comedy in Foenkinos’s approach. He says:

“Readers always find themselves in a good book, in one way or another. Reading is a complete egotistical pleasure. Unconsciously we expect books to speak to us.”

I am not sure egotistical is quite the correct word in translation here. Solitary, meditative, singular?

Perhaps only a Frenchman would write a sentence like: “She dressed the way he wanted, so that he would undress her in the way she wanted.” But then “normally a very elegant man with almost British self control…”

I cannot see this as television, it would be more of a publishing soap opera, an Emmerdale/Chesapeake set in Brittany/Paris but Delphine is the kind of editor many in publishing might aspire to and Pick’s daughter Josephine fairly sparkles through her unhappinesses. In fact all the women are very well drawn. And it is a snapshot of a bookish era which is passing quickly.

You might park it around the house and return to it at different times, more rhombic than a rumbustious romp – a game of chess –  skillfully assembled, the mystery carefully dissembled, and with a pleasing touch in the manner of the story telling. And also it riffs on the notions of reality and fiction and what we believe. And nobody gets killed. Thank you, Walter, good start.

About drewsmith28

Words, words, words...
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