Love conquers all. That evergreen sentiment lights up this short novel, the first U.S. publication for its Irish author.
A knife flashes and a boy is cut in the opening sentence. It’s a minor injury in a children’s scuffle, but also a portent of the violence ahead. The setting is Gigondas, a village in a wine-making region of Provence. Most of the action takes place in the summer of 1920, when the fight victim, Christian Aragon, the lead and narrator, is almost 17 and about to graduate from high school. It’s only two years since the end of the Great War, in which Christian’s older brother Eugene was killed. Their father, the bullying, egotistical Robert, had expected Eugene to succeed him as a wine-maker, the family business for two centuries. Now that duty falls to Christian, but he’s resisting; he intends to make his own way in life. (His timid mother stands apart from the struggle.) Life at the chateau since Eugene’s death has become an empty ritual. School is more inviting, for Christian has fallen in love with his beautiful 24-year-old geography teacher Vivienne Pleyden, who lives alone since her brutally abusive husband disappeared, to dodge the draft. Christian’s love for her is innocent, passionate and unconditional. Vivienne reciprocates it, as he discovers on an officially sanctioned school trip to Avignon. He loses his virginity to her in the confessional box of a church. What might have been messy and mawkish is redeemed by Bowman’s fresh, invigorating prose. Back in Gigondas, everything changes. There’s a murder, a crime of passion, followed by a courtroom drama and its lengthy aftermath. From the rhythms of a coming-of-age story, with its incremental discoveries, we are plunged into a maelstrom.
Bowman is a robust storyteller, and he keeps us hooked, but a last-minute revelation, recasting the killer’s identity, undercuts what had been the novel’s greatest appeal, its forthrightness.