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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Low Heights

Pascal Garnier

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To purchase Low Heights

Title: Low Heights
Author: Pascal Garnier
Genre: Novel
Written: 2003 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 186 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Low Heights - US
Low Heights - UK
Low Heights - Canada
Les Hauts du Bas - Canada
Les Hauts du Bas - France
  • French title: Les Hauts du Bas
  • Translated by Melanie Florence

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Our Assessment:

A- : sly, and cheerfully macabre

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 18/8/2017 Barry Forshaw
The Guardian . 27/9/2017 Laura Wilson
Irish Times . 12/8/2017 Declan Burke
The NY Rev. of Books . 9/4/2020 John Banville
The Spectator . 14/10/2017 Jeff Noon
The Times . 19/8/2017 Marcel Berlins

  From the Reviews:
  • "Low Heights has as much to say about ageing and emotional intelligence as many more overtly literary novels." - Barry Forshaw, Financial Times

  • "Garnier’s startling and surprisingly moving novels tend to centre on strange goings-on in French provincial settings, creating a world that is at once familiar and utterly bizarre." - Laura Wilson, The Guardian

  • "Deliciously sly and nuanced, Low Heights is as much an acerbic commentary on the crime novel’s conventions as it is a slow-burning psychological thriller." - Declan Burke, Irish Times

  • "Garnier balances cruel jokes with startling poetic images that catch the reader unawares. There is no learning in this novel, no explaining of the urge to kill, none of the methods by which we currently account for human endeavour: instead, the acts of violence happen in the moment, without proper forethought, the outcome of a sudden desire that takes us over. It rings true." - Jeff Noon, The Spectator

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Vultures literally circle in Low Heights -- "Vultures, here ?" one surprised character asks -- but they're just the tip of Garnier's iceberg of ominosity in a novel that wrong-foots the reader (and several of the characters ...) at many a turn.
       Low Heights' finds Édouard Lavenant a grumpy widower in his mid-seventies, living in relatively isolated but reasonably comfortable retirement; money is not a problem. A stroke has left him with the use of only one arm, so he is reliant on a live-in help, but the fifty-two-year-old woman he has hired, Thérèse, seems up to the job and they get along well enough; she seems to know how to handle the curmudgeonly old man. Édouard resented his wife, Cécile, dying, of cancer, a decade earlier, and threw himself into his work, but his stroke: "forced him to pack it all in". Restless, limited in what he can do by his crippled arm, and with his mind occasionally wandering and losing its way, he gives an often dissatisfied impression; he's also capricious.
       Thérèse assures him she isn't after his money -- but is she to be trusted ? Édouard is lonely, and she can provide closer companionship ..... She certainly seems to have quickly adapted to her new situation -- unsurprisingly perhaps:

     She loved living like a chameleon, an actor, even, absorbing other people's lives to the point that she adopted their smells, their tics, their expressions and their accents, and then, overnight, wiping all that away to begin again elsewhere, as a hermit crab changes shells.
       Édouard acts on whims, making small purchases -- justifying childish ones by saying they are for a grandchild he doesn't have, for example -- or getting a typewriter in order to write his memoirs, a writing exercise that soon veers off in other directions ("Today he had just wrung the life out of the word PUGNACIOUS and derived the serene satisfaction of having done his duty").
       Then a young man shows up at the door, Jean-Baptiste Lorieux, the son of one of Édouard's former secretaries -- and bearing a strong resembalnce to Édouard ..... Édouard never knew of his existence, but isn't exactly shocked to find out he wasn't childless after all. He warns the young man that he won't get any money out of him, but otherwise rather enjoys at playing father for a while. But, as Édouard quickly realizes, Jean-Baptiste also isn't quite who he claimed (a successful businessman and family man, in the area on business).
       There's considerable foreboding in Low Heights, and not the least of it is has Édouard finding himself lost on occasion, his mind a blank as to how to simply find home. (There is, however, always help; he wanders and strays, but ultimately isn't (yet) lost.) When tragedy appears out of nowhere, the first time, Édouard, Thérèse, and Jean-Baptiste are merely witnesses -- and singularly obsessed Édouard doesn't let it throw him in the least. But there's more to come .....
       With radical sharp turns, Garnier twists his tale in some very unexpected directions, as it becomes a black comedy that's occasionally close to farce. Édouard's carefree attitude contrasts with an otherwise very sinister atmosphere, and Garnier plays a wild but carefully balanced game with his story.
       It flits quickly along, eventually also to other locales: a long car ride to Lyon, where Édouard's huge old apartment stands empty, and then to Switzerland. Characters pop up and are easily disposed of, and Jean-Baptiste isn't the only one bearing a striking resemblance to Édouard .....
       Édouard is both a difficult and damaged man -- manifest in his physical incapacity and signs of (still only intermittent) mental debilitation. He's determined and sure of himself -- or at least his actions -- but obviously also vulnerable, as an accommodating Thérèse, in particular, comes to learn. So what will be the cost of this weakening old man's character combination -- to him, and (or ?) to others ?
       Some gleefully macabre twists take this story to very unexpected places, Garnier barreling ahead in this very unusual take on aging, human (and family) relationships, and morality. It's rough and tumble in part (literally, too) -- and fast -- but it's quite remarkably well done.
       At one point Jean-Baptiste observes of his father: "How black your view of the world is"; so too Garnier's, throughout Low Heights -- and yet it's hard not to close the book with a cheerful, satisfied smile. One hesitates to call it ‘delightful’, and yet ultimately that’s exactly what it is, too. Though in a really, really dark and disturbing way.

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 November 2017

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Low Heights: Reviews: Other books by Pascal Garnier under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Pascal Garnier lived 1949 to 2010.

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© 2017-2021 the complete review

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