This grim portrait of gypsies won a French literary prize after its 1997 publication.
Angelina is only 57, but gypsies age fast. The matriarch has just taken possession of a disused vegetable garden (in an unidentified French town) that will prove to be her last address. She has arrived with her five sons, four daughters-in-law and seven grandchildren. Her husband is dead; caught stealing, he was beaten to a pulp and left to die. With her rotten teeth and distended belly, Angelina is an ugly old crone, yet her complexion, the author notes, is sometimes “golden.” Here Ferney wants to have it both ways, portraying Angelina as a gypsy version of Mother Courage who is also stupid and obstinate. Ferney offers an ambivalent portrayal of the sons: They drink, they steal, they fornicate and they’re almost completely idle, yet they also have “a magnificent kind of inertia,” which renders them “both sublime and infuriating.” One bright spot is angelic Esther. Esther is a gadje (non-gypsy), a Jewish nurse turned librarian who shows up out of the blue to read fairy tales to the children; the ragamuffins are good as gold, spellbound. Esther visits every week, although she has a husband and three kids of her own. She manages to get the local school to accept one of the gypsy children, but can’t stop City Hall from closing down the encampment. Angelina, who has been throwing their letters into the fire unopened, decides to starve herself to death rather than go through another eviction; she has just enough strength left to deliver a string of homilies before she expires.
The gypsies’ wretchedness makes for dreary reading, exacerbated by the lack of plot.