13, rue Thérèse by Elena Mauli Shapiro

by eashmere

Elena Mauli Shapiro’s novel, 13, rue Thérèse is full of tricks. Facts blur into fantasy. The past slips into the present and back again. Photographs of quirky objects and handwritten documents play with the idea that the camera never lies.

In the foreword, the author claims the novel was sparked by an incident which occurred after her elderly neighbour, Louise Brunet, died alone in her Parisian apartment in the 1980s. Having no living relatives or friends, Louise’s belongings were offered to residents of the building.

Shapiro recalls her mother bringing home a ‘strange box’ filled with mysterious items, including: two pairs of delicate lace gloves, rosary beads, love letters written from the trenches complete with horrifying details about the ‘human butchery of war’, sobering photographs of grim-eyed soldiers, a tiny pocket calendar and a single silver key.

It is through this collection of ordinary but precious objects, this ‘sepulchre of the heart’, that Louise Brunet’s life story is slowly fleshed out through the book’s narrator, a visiting American academic, Trevor Stratton.

We meet Stratton in the present day as he settles into his new office in Paris. Tucked away in the bottom of a filing cabinet, he finds a wooden box. Should he open it, or return it to the flame-haired secretary who seems obsessed with bombarding him with endless piles of paperwork? Surely there is no harm in peeking inside. The contents might even lead him to a fertile area of study before the secretary whisks it away.

And so it does.

As Stratton studies the odd assortment of items, Louise Brunet comes to life.

Haunted by the children she’s failed to conceive with her dull but pleasant jeweller husband, Louise pines for the loss of the man she didn’t marry. She fills her days teaching piano to the eccentric young prodigy, Garance, who watches her with ‘eyes as green as a young plant’. Sometimes Louise invents racy confessions to tell her shocked priest. But when the handsome, married schoolteacher, Xavier Langlais, moves into her building at 13 rue Thérèse, she is overwhelmed with ‘desire and shame’.

The refreshingly experimental narrative keeps the tone supple and light, however, this too is a mirage. Shapiro certainly travels to some dark places. Essentially a tale of two surprising romances, the book’s charm lies in the author’s ability to conjure up glittering shards of stories from a handful of fading mementoes.

Published in the Northern Rivers Echo

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