Books, Fiction, Reviews

The End of Eddy by Edouard Louis book review

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For the comfortable middle class of the western world, politics is usually conscripted for a verbal tournament. It’s rarely a matter of life or death, more a jousting tool over dinner parties or a dance of metaphorical sabre thrusts around the garden barbecue.

For 24-year-old Édouard Louis, the most compelling novelist to emerge from the French literary scene in recent years — and whose best-selling novel The End of Eddy has been translated into 20 languages — politics defined every day in a small, gritty town in the north of France.

Louis comes from a desperately poor milieu who support the far right Front National, and who vote for Marine Le Pen, because “she is the only one who speaks to us”. The town is Hallencourt in Picardy a post-industrial village of 1300 people.

His father, his grandfather and great grandfather grew up in this same village.

They all worked in the same factory. Everyone left school at 14. The men’s lives revolve around deeply embedded habits and rituals of acceptance or rejection based on toughness, masculinity, drinking, foul language, sporting prowess, watching pornography and routine harassment of ‘the other’.

The women’s lives are defined by early motherhood and the hardship and indignity which comes with uncertain employment. Louis says: “Often my family ran out of money. When we had nothing — no meat, potatoes or rice — my mother would say, ‘Tonight, we’ll eat milk’. Of course, you don’t eat milk, you drink it. She was fighting against the reality.”

Racism is rampant, domestic violence endemic and accepted, being regarded as a ‘tough guy’ is the greatest compliment and  homosexuals are shamed and bullied. Eddy’s earliest school experiences evolve around his understanding of his difference. His parents would refer to his “fancy ways; stop putting on those fancy ways”. “Why does Eddy act like such a girl?” “That kid’s got a screw loose, he’s not right in the head.”

“When you are bourgeois, you have two lives: you have your everyday life, and you also see yourself on TV, in books, in the media, in the arts. But people like my mother, like my father — they are dismissed as if they don’t exist.”

Thus, he experienced the isolation created by thinking, feeling, and speaking differently from those around you, while still ostensibly speaking the same language. Conversations with his family were exercises in misunderstanding. Today his writing uses the language of the bourgeoisie “who have the advantages” but is laced with the language of his childhood which “called me a poor faggot … the language that was no friend of mine but a language of violence.”

“In my childhood, there were no books. My parents have never read a book in their lives. For us, a book was a kind of assault: it represented a life we would never have, the life of people who pursue an education, who have time to read, who have gone to university and had an easier time of it than us.”

Thus, this is a deeply political novel. When first published in France in 2014 (it was translated into English this year) it posed a challenge to the traditional left which had abandoned its working class base. In an interview with The Guardian in March this year, he said:  “Of course, I’m revolted by the right, but I never expected the right to do anything for the lower classes, but the left … the left has stopped speaking about poverty, misery and exclusion.”

“When you are bourgeois, you have two lives: you have your everyday life, and you also see yourself on TV, in books, in the media, in the arts. But people like my mother, like my father — they are dismissed as if they don’t exist.”

The book is written in a steady and unflinching tone  — and surprisingly with an underlying tenderness. He harbors no ill-will towards his parents, school mates or neighbours for the miseries they inflicted intentionally or otherwise, nor does he blame their circumstances. “A dominant myth in society is that when people are suffering, it is their fault; if they are poor, only they are to blame. My mother believed this too.”

After the book was published, his mother didn’t mind that he had called her racist or homophobic, but she was deeply ashamed at being called poor. She said “You’ve betrayed our family.” His brother came to Paris with a baseball bat wanting to kill him. But surprisingly his father was more positive.

At 14 Louis had escaped with a scholarship to a good high school in a larger city, then found his way to one of Paris’s elite universities, the École Normale Supérieure. They had not spoken for years, but when the book was released, his father rang him and said “I’m so proud of you” and bought copies of the book to give to his friends.

The book was a way of telling his family “I am not like you anymore”. He saw it as a manifesto for change. “There is a beauty in metamorphosis, in not being what society forces you to be.”

The End of Eddy is published by Harvill Secker

2 responses to “The End of Eddy by Edouard Louis book review

  1. That sounds like the kind of book that would come out of America. In that case it is universal and we could ask ourselves what we could do about the problems expressed. Education of course, I have met too many very intelligent but uneducated people not to advocate a more inclusive education system. We can only hope that robots will not take over the jobs that such people might find employment in. These are the sort of problems that should be addressed now not after they occur.

  2. It’s like growing up outside the cities in Australia: I tell people I’m bilingual, it’s such a different ways of seeing and talking about the world if you’ve had a trajectory that mirrors Eddy’s.
    People are not necessarily right wing in Oz country towns, but the desperate poverty in many places, especially obvious in education, health care and standards of living, would amaze most urban residents.

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