Saturday, 5 December 2015

The Poisoning Angel by Jean Teulé

This is a really odd book, surrealist and illusory. It's a novel based on a true story, that of Hélène Jégado, a Breton cook, who poisoned at least 30 people whom she chose at random, between 1833 and 1851. This is the first novel by the author that I have read, but apparently this is his trademark in France: novelising real crimes from history, the story often told from the perspective of the murderer, the books often courting controversy in his homeland.

So it is with this work. At the end of the novel there is an interview with the author where he describes the research he conducted and how uncomfortable many people in Jégado's hometown were with the idea of him basing a novel on her murders.

I can see why The Poisoning Angel might be uncomfortable reading for some. Told almost entirely from the perspective of Hélène, the book describes her journey across Brittany poisoning person after person, often her employers and their families, alongside any friends, relations or associates, unfortunate enough to stop by for lunch. The death of her employers leads to her putting herself out of work and she moves on, finding new employ, and conducting the process all over again.

You might wonder why nobody seems to put two and two together and indeed everyone else in the novel is incredibly naive, to the point of childlike innocence. Towards the end of the novel some townsfolk start to cotton on but even then most of the people within Hélène and her victims' orbit are remarkably blind to the obvious pattern. Don't get me wrong, this isn't an oversight by the author, but is rather a facet of the dreamlike surrealism that imbues the novel.

Throughout the novel there is a disconnected subplot about a pair of Parisian wig makers who travel to Breton to pay people for hair. Beset by mishap after mishap they eventually go 'native' smearing themselves in mud and hair. While their paths cross with Hélène occasionally, the main point of this seems to be to underline the notion that Breton is a somehow primitive, atavistic region of France. This of course underlines the main storyline, Hélène herself coming from Breton.

Having no real knowledge of France other than that gleaned from holiday travel and school history lessons, I have no idea whether this view of Breton is one commonly held in France. So this idea that Breton is somehow part of France but simultaneously seen as "other" was interesting. Similarly the novel at times is amusing and as a whole it is certainly original. But I have to admit to finding the whole thing a little tiring after a while. I found myself yearning to know the real story behind Hélène Jégado's crimes and how she escaped justice for eighteen years. There's obviously a fascinating story here but by the end of Jean Teulé's tale I was more frustrated than enlightened.

I would give this novel 3 out of 5 stars

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