THE LAST LIFE by Claire Messud


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Messud returns (When the World Was Steady, 1995; not reviewed) capably indeed, with an intelligent coming-of-ager about a teenaged girl half-American and half—Algerian-French. Sagesse LaBasse is 16 in 1991, and here she tells what took place in her life in that crucial girlhood year and in the three or so years before it: and in doing so also limns a painful span in French history, from colonial days in Africa through the battle of Algiers—and on to the psychic tolls taken on those who became no longer Algerian and not quite French either. Sagesse’s grandfather fled Algiers before the collapse, having invested already in land on a semi-barren spot on the Riviera. There he relocated his family, built a hotel, and saw it flourish just as he had foreseen, along with the growing tourist industry. He had always been a rigidly domineering man, however, and success only fed his bitterness at “exile,” his increasingly rightist demand for what he thought of as social dignity, decorum, and, above all, civic respect and order. So it is that one night when Sagesse’s friends are using the hotel pool and making a great deal of modern, disrespectful teenage noise, her grandfather—well, he shoots at them. Wounding a girl, he ends up in court, goes to jail for six months—and thus exposes the psychic-emotional crack in the LaBasse family that will break it up for good. When that happens, Sagesse will describe it just as bravely and vividly as she does everything else—her own trials through adolescence; her American mother’s strange and pale varieties of weakness; the probable feelings of her profoundly retarded brother Etienne (and her own for him); her father’s boyhood, maturation, marriage—and finally his utter, wracking, ruinous calamity. A broad canvas, unflinching and clear eye for the truth, and a family tale that never fails to compel and that reverberates universally, as a fine saga should.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-15-100471-4
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Harcourt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 2001


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