Giono’s novel tells a harrowing story of isolation and taut social interaction cloaked with ambiguous psychology and a growing sense of menace.
Murder, obsession, and fraught interpersonal relationships abound in this novel, but it’s telling that the book opens with a pair of paragraphs discussing the histories of the families and the landscape around the village where it's set. This is a novel in which terrible things happen to numerous people, and Giono doesn’t take long to introduce the first of many sinister events: the disappearance of a woman named Marie Chazottes. It’s the middle of the winter of 1843, and Marie’s disappearance and the claustrophobia brought on by the snowfall ratchets up tensions among the villagers. The disappearances continue, and the townspeople take further precautions: “New, very precise passwords were given to everyone. The school was closed. People were advised not to leave the village for any reason, even in broad daylight,” Giono writes. Attempting to solve this mystery is a gendarme named Langlois, described by the narrator as “a right rascal.” Langlois eventually brings the case to a resolution, and by the time he returns to the village, he seems somehow altered. Gradually, Langlois emerges as a contradictory figure: one part haunted investigator, one part figure of quiet menace. The means by which Giono tells this story creates a fantastic sense of the community surrounding Langlois: The novel’s narrator frequently interpolates the narratives of others into the larger story, and the result is a kind of compound, collagelike tale, one that has elements of detective fiction but which abounds with ambiguity. Susan Stewart’s introduction impressively places this work within Giono’s own biography and 20th-century French history.
This immersive novel creates a memorably delirious sense of mystery, obsession, and altered perceptions.