Wednesday, August 19, 2020

#WITMonth Day 19 | The Restless by Gerty Dambury | Review

I was not expecting The Restless to be what it was. Gerty Dambury's novel (translated from French by Judith G. Miller) somehow struck me as the sort of book I'd need to slog through, something that would be experimental in a frustrating-but-understandably-important way. I have no idea where that idea even came from or why I was initially so put off from the book. Maybe (as always...) the fault is in my own perceptions of the meta-framing - the Feminist Press cover shows a brown-shaded old-fashioned classroom, rows of empty seats. The back cover blurb leads with a little girl's concern over her teacher's disappearance. Somehow - bafflingly - I created some sort of story in mind of what The Restless would be and concluded that I would struggle to read the book. Oh, how wrong I was.

I positively devoured The Restless

At 237 pages, The Restless is neither a short nor particularly long book, but it's somehow massive and brisk at the same time. The best word I can think to describe it is "crackling". And okay, maybe part of my association with that word is because I accidentally got the book wet a year back when I bought it and it dried in such a way that the spine crackles whenever you flip the pages, but goodness if it doesn't apply to the inside as well. The Restless is indeed experimental in a lot of senses, using an honestly pretty strange quadrille framing technique, with alternating narration and constant perspective shifts. That most of the narrators are dead is definitely another weird factor, but my goodness it works. There's so much about this novel that could go wrong, and yet it all works so well.

At the center of The Restless is Émilienne, the young girl "struggling with the sudden disappearance of her teacher and father", per the cover description. Émilienne defines the novel through her insistence on sitting outside of her house, waiting for her father to return home. Her older siblings look on with worry and fear, narrating the dance that outlines the novel as a whole. Émilienne tells her story in bits, but is also in the process of an abstract conversation with dead neighbors and semi-strangers, characters whose lives intertwine or at times barely brush each other. The dead constantly jostle each for their stage, arguing in little asides and scenes. Together, this mish-mash of different characters tells the story of several pivotal days in Guadeloupe's history, starting from a worker's strike and leading into widespread rioting and violence in May 1967. Thus alongside the story of Émilienne's family history and personal narrative arc (and oh, I do so love a good childhood arc!), Dambury paints a striking portrait of Guadeloupe as a complex whole.

These different threads frequently tug at each other, but the balance is shockingly good. Dambury has the rare ability to pack her story with dozens of characters and plot pieces and keep things tight. The Restless never feels like it's unsure of where it's going or what the point of the novel is. There's always that crackle, something tense and fully confident, both in the writing and the plotting itself. The writing never lets you forget that this book is telling a wide story that is at the same time fully focused on Émilienne. It's relentless. It's excellent.

The Restless has, unfortunately, not gotten very much attention in English, nor has its author. As of publishing this review, Gerty Dambury does not have a Wikipedia page in English and The Restless appears to be her only work translated into English. Dambury, it turns out, is predominantly a playwright, and it occurs me now that this may explain The Restless's pacing, tension, and excellent storytelling balance. I would absolutely love to read/experience more of Dambury's writing, but in the meantime I'd be satisfied to see her gain a wider audience in English through The Restless. A wonderful, special book that I'm so glad I ended up reading.

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