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A Woman’s Battles and Transformations by Édouard Louis review – portrait of a mother’s darkest days | Édouard Louis

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French writer Édouard Louis made his debut with The End of Eddy (2017), a novel drawn from his torrid experience of growing up gay in a working-class village in northern France. Yet more distressing was his next novel, History of Violence (2018), about his rape at gunpoint by a stranger he took to bed after a chance meeting on the street in Paris. Louis addressed the nightmarish subject with extreme sophistication: where The End of Eddy is episodically anecdote-driven, History of Violence unfolds as the narrator, Édouard, eavesdrops on his sister telling her husband about the crime – and taking issue along the way with the truth of her brother’s account in The End of Eddy, in an ethically knotty narrative about memory and appropriation, not to mention sex, class and race (Édouard’s assailant has Algerian heritage).

It’s something of an understatement to suggest that Louis operates at the sharp edge of autofiction – the man charged with his attack was acquitted on appeal – and his memoirs cut no less close to the bone, navigating in something close to real time how his shift into middle classness, a transition ultimately born of writing about his upbringing, has changed his relationship with his parents.

Louis’s mother, Monique, in her early 20s
Louis’s mother, Monique, in her early 20s. Photograph: from the private collection of the author

First came Who Killed My Father, riding the wave of the commentariat’s hunger to explain populist politics by refining the portrait of Jacky, the patriarch seen in The End of Eddy as a boorish homophobe, racist and antisemite, but now no longer Édouard’s tormentor so much as a hopeless man crushed by Sarkozy and Macron, the “killers” of the title’s metaphorical indictment.

Now comes the story of his mother, Monique, in A Woman’s Battles and Transformations, a lament for what Louis sees as her “destroyed” first 20 years of adulthood, a story he’s told previously, as well as a tribute to her hard-won independence in later life. The “battles”, rehearsed in outline here, will be well enough known to Louis’s past readers. Monique gives up chef training after a plumber gets her pregnant at 17; they marry, have a second child and she walks out soon after, fed up with his disloyalty before settling with another man – Louis’s father, a factory worker – only for the pattern to repeat. Problems worsen with a back injury that tips him into drink and destitution, kept at bay by Monique’s work as a home help, made more difficult to come by thanks to her husband’s refusal to allow her to obtain a driving licence.

The material remains painful, yet Louis’s mellowing tone can be seen in how much more gently he portrays the grim details of Monique’s occupation than he did in The End of Eddy, a luridly styled book undeniably out to shock. The heartbreaking details tend to be quieter, often related to a kind of survivor’s guilt as Louis looks back to his mother’s ill-starred attempts to conjure an escape during his childhood. Witness his account of the pyramid scam she fell for when, aged 12, he watches her try “her best handwriting” while filling in the forms to claim her winnings; or the change that occurs when she strikes up a short-lived friendship with a woman with a white-collar job who “taught [her] different expressions that gave you greater self-confidence – you now said ‘Absolutely’ when someone else was speaking – do you remember?”

Remarkably, Louis avoids patronising his mother in all this. Not long ago, he tells us, she asked if she could work as his cleaner; his response is to wonder if he’s become the sort of person he used to resent for their privilege. It’s a moment that shows how much this book is about him – he can’t seem to hear what she’s saying, which is that she wants to work. Another reason we don’t pity Monique is the venom that, albeit lower in the mix than in The End of Eddy, still bubbles at the book’s core. There’s an astonishing passage in which, aged 16, having returned from his studies in Amiens for a summer job in the village, he suffers an infected appendix and his mother, watching television, cigarette in hand, simply dismisses it as a bourgeois affectation brought on by his time in the city. “The distance in social class had so contaminated our relationship that you saw me only as an instrument of class aggression, and this situation… nearly killed me.”

History of Violence, whatever the uncertainty of its status, was so startling in part because of the way it portrayed Édouard’s impulse to excuse his assailant, not least because of his unease at the context of racism in which his suffering is interpreted (by the police for one). A Woman’s Battles… is a very different book, but it’s animated by an equal friction between the narrator’s contradictory feelings of sympathy and hurt. And, yes, Louis has drawn on this material before, but he has a ready answer for anyone who worries the tale is already too well worn: “I’ve been told that literature should never repeat itself, but I want to write only the same story again and again… digging hole after hole in it until all that is hidden begins to seep out.” You suspect this uniquely troubling writer is far from done yet.

A Woman’s Battles and Transformations by Édouard Louis (translated by Tash Aw) is published by Harvill Secker (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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