Sagesse (meaning "wisdom") LaBasse, the narrator of Claire Messud's second novel, The Last Life, is French-Algerian on her father's side and American on her mother's. A born storyteller, she is thoughtful beyond her years but wholly persuasive as she contemplates the endless, arduous question of identity, tracing the history of her father's benighted family over several decades in Algeria and the southern coast of France.
The LaBasse clan are nothing if not tortured. Jacques, the autocratic but desperate grandfather who runs the three-star Bellevue Hotel--which he built in the late fifties on an unpromising stretch of Mediterranean shoreline with money borrowed from a wealthy university comrade--casts a long and dark shadow over everyone. In particular, he torments his son, Alexandre, Sagesse's father, who defiantly and foolishly stayed on in Algeria after his father read the political writing on the wall and decamped, with nearly a million other French Algerians, the so-called pieds-noirs, to take up uneasy residence in a country where they could never feel at home.
Only the birth of his physically disabled and brain-damaged son, Etienne Parfait (the second name, ironically, meaning "perfect"), forces Alexandre's hand, and he abandons his beloved soil, taking refuge with his father. Not surprisingly, the new life doesn't take: "In France, both literally and metaphorically, Alexandre was dépaysé." In a sense, everyone in the bewildered LaBasse family fits this description, even Alexandre's American wife, Carol, who adores French culture but simply can't abide the rule of her father-in-law or the assumptions of her husband, who "had been raised to believe that a woman would bend, easily, gratefully, to her husband's life." The disintegration of their marriage forms the bleak underbelly of this novel.
Sagesse has been a student at Columbia University for six years when she begins her story, but we are quickly absorbed into her sensually opulent, adolescent world, which she describes with a peculiar grace and sensitivity. Indeed, a large part of my enthusiasm for this novel arises from the prose itself, an exquisite medium of artfully chosen images and memorable phrases, as when Sagesse describes herself as "trapped in the whispering unease of my parents' house" or when she tosses off a brief sketch of her coastal surroundings:
On the quay, the ferries and tour boats were disgorging and absorbing people in great numbers: old women with sun hats and straw baskets, families in shorts and sunglasses, a few businesspeople looking creased and harried, heading home early. The boats at their moorings clacked in the swell, and gulls strutted the pavement, pausing to poke their beaks at crumbs and abandoned frites.
In lesser novelists, such passages become set pieces as the writer draws a deep breath, then exudes a trail of vaporous prose baubles. Messud never succumbs to that urge; her lyricism remains integral, a part of the accumulating force of her narrative. This requires immense confidence, a willingness to accede to the story and its demands and various dimensions. One saw the beginnings of this confidence in her first book, When the World Was Steady (1995)--a lyrical exploration of opposite worlds created by two middle-aged sisters--but Messud has leaped forward here.
The Last Life is a complex instrument, a harp whose many strings are always in tune. One strain that seems always present is the family's unhealthy tradition of keeping secrets, a "rolling conspiracy of silence" that Sagesse finds herself folded into, however unwillingly. This willful absence of communication forms the empty center of the marriage between Alexandre and Carol, about which Sagesse ruefully observes: "I dreaded my father's returns in the evenings, and was sickened by the civilized facade my parents maintained, whether for my benefit or Etienne's it was never clear."
Alexandre, of course, learned his tricks at the master's feet, and Jacques is defiantly unwilling to reveal himself to anyone, even when disaster strikes him and his family. "He had always been deemed, by those who loved him," notes his granddaughter, "a difficult man and brilliant therefore, a man with a temper, a man gnawed upon by undisclosed demons."