Pauline Delabroy-Allard’s debut novel, All About Sarah, is a brilliantly haunting story about an intense and passionate love affair between two women, writes Elodie Rose Barnes.
“Oh clear night day of dark mists / My absent love in my arms here / No other part of me persists / But what you whispered in my ear.”
So wrote Louis Aragon, the French surrealist poet, in his short poem ‘Les Lilas’. The lilacs of the title are the catalyst for a dreamscape of love, loss and longing; of a lover just out of reach but permeating, like the scent of the flowers, the poet’s entire existence. It’s easy to see why Pauline Delabroy-Allard chose this stanza to preface her debut novel, translated superbly by Adriana Hunter. Like the poem, All About Sarah delves into the “dark mists” of love. It emerges as a a brilliantly haunting story that draws the reader in so far that coming out the other side feels slightly disorientating; a powerful, intense account of a relationship that becomes destructive and a love that consumes itself.
Appropriately enough we start the first part of the book in the spring, a time of new beginnings, “a spring to depress the best of us”. Our protagonist is drifting. She’s a thirty-something teacher, raising a young daughter and lonely despite a new boyfriend. And this is almost all that we learn about her, because immediately there is Sarah: “Sarah the impetuous, Sarah the passionate”, a vivid burst of colour on a slate-grey Parisian world. In a poignant scene early on, she becomes “Sarah the sulphurous” as she strikes a match to light a cigarette and admits that she has fallen in love with the protagonist, “an unsayable reality finally said, the smell of the truth laid bare…laid at my feet like a gift.” But a match’s flare quickly dies. Nothing can burn so bright and hot for very long.
From the beginning, this “gift” is a love of passionate obsession. Our protagonist allows herself to be swept along and subsumed by Sarah, her identity almost totally merged with her lover’s. Sarah wears mascara and so she starts to wear it too. Sarah is a classical violinist, and so she begins to devour books on chamber music and listen to quartets on a loop. Sarah swears; our protagonist incorporates these words into her own language. Her daughter is a mere shadow in the background to this new relationship, never truly existing as a character – not an oversight on the author’s part but a realistic aspect of a selfish kind of love that has no room for any other. Sarah is constantly on tour with her quartet, and so life becomes a whirlwind of train stations and airports, quick nights of heated, frantic lovemaking in between goodbyes. It’s exhausting but addictive, and the very short chapters and repeated phrases have the effect of layering their passion like a drug. Soon intensity erupts into violence. The word passion, after all, derives from one that means suffering, but our protagonist is incapable of ending it. “She’s alive”, is a phrase that is constantly repeated with reference to Sarah. We begin to feel that, without Sarah, our protagonist is not. “No other part of me persists / But what you whispered…”. Coincidentally – or not – Sarah lives in the Parisian suburb of Les Lilas.
By Part 2 of the book, it’s over. Sarah, now sick with breast cancer, has finished the relationship and our protagonist is running away. At first she tries to escape within Paris, riding the Métro lines and walking the city streets in an attempt to find something, anything, that does not remind her of Sarah. When that fails, she looks further afield and books a flight to Italy. Sentences and chapters become longer as she wanders the streets of first Milan and then Trieste, avoiding what she would rather not face. A slight sense of surreal madness begins to take hold: she is convinced that Sarah’s breast cancer is somehow her fault, the result of a relationship that destroyed her lover from within. Her only comfort is the sea at Trieste, and her days drift past in the same monotonous routine that reminds us vaguely of her life – such as we knew it – before Sarah. Now, though, everything is tainted by Sarah’s memory. In the bright Italian sunshine and in contrast to the “glimmering gold, blindingly beautiful” presence of the Adriatic, she seems to fade before our eyes. The match has finally burned out.
Throughout the novel there is no one else in focus apart from the two women, no anchor of a social world beyond them. The straightforward language of the translation strips the reader of any imagined “outside”. Even the use of the word “snatch”, a French slang word for female genitals, is simple but expressive, a blunt term that you would only use in a familiar, intimate setting (if you weren’t using it as an insult). Ultimately, this means that there is nothing external to blame. Passion, in this rendering of it, is the source of its own destruction. Unlike many other novelists who have used the notion of “otherness” with regard to lesbian relationships, Delabroy-Allard steers clear of any hint of exclusion or homophobia. The force of the novel is internal, not external. Perhaps because of this, there are no clear answers at the end. Is Sarah dead? We don’t know. Has our protagonist decided to live, to return to Paris and her daughter? We don’t know that either. All that’s left is the dissipating smoke from the match, and a lingering, questioning doubt about whether such destructiveness can really be called “love” at all.
All About Sarah by Pauline Delabroy-Allard (translated by Adriana Hunter) is published by Harvill Secker (Penguin) and is available to purchase online now.