Who will win the Nobel Prize in literature? In literary circles, this question hovers over the fall season as pundits speculate and bookmakers set the odds. I typically await the announcement with some trepidation. Every year I resolve to read more global literature, and every year I fall short of my goal. (Editing Kirkus’ first International Issue earlier this year did supply me with some ready-made reading lists.) I’m ashamed to admit that I hadn’t read a single book by Abdulrazak Gurnah (2021), Olga Tokarczuk (2018), Patrick Modiano (2014), or Mo Yan (2012) at the time each won the prize.

So I wasted no time when French writer Annie Ernaux won the Nobel Prize in literature on Oct. 6. I knew her reputation and was eager to dive into her work, especially her short, intense autobiographical writing. Over the weekend I tracked down a copy of Happening, translated by Tanya Leslie and originally released in the United States by Seven Stories Press in 2001. Earlier this year, a French film adaptation of the book, written and directed by Audrey Diwan, screened in the U.S. The subject, I knew, was Ernaux’s abortion at the age of 23.

Clocking in at less than 100 pages, Happening is concentrated stuff, best read in a single sitting. From a perspective decades later, the author recounts how she became pregnant while living and attending university in the city of Rouen, northwest of Paris. The year is 1963, and abortion is illegal in France; Ernaux is hard-pressed to find someone to perform the procedure, and doctors, fearing the legal repercussions, will not discuss it with her. Eventually, through a friend, she learns the name of Madame P-R, a woman in Paris who will give her the abortion and “[attend] to her business with quiet determination,” Ernaux writes. She methodically depicts the scene as if it were a painting: the formica table, the enamel basin of steaming water containing the red probe, the hairbrush next to it.

It’s an astonishing book, in its own way quietly determined to describe and understand everything about this moment in the author’s life. “I have finished putting into words what I consider to be an extreme human experience,” Ernaux writes, “bearing on life and death, time, law, ethics and taboo—an experience that sweeps through the body.” It calls to mind The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), Joan Didion’s similarly dispassionate attempt to analyze her grief after the sudden death of her husband. It also made me think of the unforgettable abortion scene in Didion’s novel Play It As It Lays (1970), where Maria notices vivid details like the newspapers on the floor and the TV playing in the next room. For U.S. readers, encountering it in the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision to strike down Roe v. Wade, Happening feels urgent and timely. If, like me, you haven’t read Ernaux, it’s a perfect entry point.

Tom Beer is the editor-in-chief.