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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Grey Souls
(By a Slow River)

Philippe Claudel

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase By a Slow River

Title: Grey Souls
Author: Philippe Claudel
Genre: Novel
Written: 2003 (Eng. 2005)
Length: 198 pages
Original in: French
Availability: By a Slow River - US
Grey Souls - UK
By a Slow River - Canada
Les âmes grises - Canada
By a Slow River - India
Les âmes grises - France
Die grauen Seelen - Deutschland
Le anime grigie - Italia
Almas grises - España
  • French title: Les âmes grises
  • UK title: Grey Souls
  • US title: By a Slow River
  • Grey Souls translated by Adriana Hunter (2005)
  • By a Slow River translated by Hoyt Rogers (2006)
  • Awarded the Prix Renaudot
  • Les âmes grises was made into a film, directed by Yves Angelo

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Our Assessment:

A- : dark, oblique meditation on overwhelming grief

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor B+ 25/8/2006 Yvonne Zipp
Entertainment Weekly B+ 9/6/2006 Jennifer Reese
FAZ A 27/11/2004 Wolfgang Schneider
The Independent A 5/8/2005 Boyd Tonkin
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 16/11/2004 Steffen Richter
The NY Times A 29/6/2006 Richard Eder
The NY Times Book Rev. . 2/7/2006 Terrence Rafferty
Sunday Telegraph . 29/5/2005 Kate Chisholm
TLS . 30/7/2004 Robin Buss
TLS . 16/9/2005 Emilie Bickerton
Die Zeit . 17/3/2005 Thomas David

  Review Consensus:

  Generally fairly impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "By a Slow River, which won the 2003 Prix Renaudot for outstanding French novel, serves less as a whodunit than as a haunting exercise in despair. Claudel gives readers the solution to the mystery, but the answers aren't there to provide comfort." - Yvonne Zipp, Christian Science Monitor

  • "More Camus than Simenon" - Jennifer Reese, Entertainment Weekly

  • "Dieser Roman, stilsicher übersetzt von Christiane Seiler, fesselt von der ersten Seite an. Zu seinen Qualitäten gehören präzise gezeichnete Figuren, bei denen doch genügend Unbestimmtheiten bleiben. Mit kalter, punktgenauer Nüchternheit, hinter der Passion und Anteilnahme vibrieren, entwirft Claudel beunruhigende Szenen und Bilder von symbolischer Kraft." - Wolfgang Schneider, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Claudel writes with a heart-gripping, melancholy beauty about this death-ridden spot (...) Oddly, for a book so infused with material and moral mists, every minor character and setting stands out in sharp relief. This is a gem of a novel, but a gem that carries a curse. It evokes above all the emotional climate of total war." - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

  • "In this grave, achingly beautiful novel by Philippe Claudel (gravely and beautifully translated from French by Hoyt Rogers), a village policeman writes out his sorrow-laden journal of the plague years. Their miasma envelops individuals' evils, decencies and mutual distances, and the deaths of four innocents." - Richard Eder, The New York Times

  • "This is a book that hits the ground brooding. (...) This elaboration of the obvious becomes a kind of mania. Claudel's compulsion to explain himself seems, peculiarly, far more powerful than his hero's urge to solve the murder. Although By a Slow River features several violent deaths and much emotional brutality, and contains in its final pages a couple of shocking revelations, the novel is curiously undisturbing. (...) Claudel seems to want to investigate the very mystery of life, but he's too worried that we might not understand exactly what he's doing. He winds up simply eviscerating it." - Terrence Rafferty, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(A)n odd, disturbing novel, haunted by ghosts, the victims of crimes that are long past but ever present. (...) Grey Souls reads at times like one of those gloomy Scandinavian rural fictions in which mud and misery play a major role. Yet at others the distinct quality of the writing (in this translation, at least) conjures up the eerie atmosphere of an Edgar Allan Poe murder-mystery. (...) (A) novel that at first appears too obtuse, too poetical, but ends as a page-turning whodunit with a subtle aftertaste." - Kate Chisholm, Sunday Telegraph

  • "(G)uilt and innocence, among these grey souls, may be more evenly distributed than at first appears and Claudel's novel keeps the surprises coming to the last page. There is nothing original in the notion of murder against the background of war or the idea that not only the guilty are guilty, but this is an artfully constructed exploration of these themes, handled with sardonic wit -- a deserving winner of last year's Prix Renaudot." - Robin Buss, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Philippe Claudel's tale is made up of recollections, regrets and a set of melancholy memories which are unfolded chapter by chapter. A style of prose so replete with metaphors is difficult to translate. The images conjured are often crude or saccharine (...) The narrator fails to win the reader's sympathy; his voice never attaches itself distinctively to his character, never attains a uniqueness that would root his cynicism in human weakness. (...) The film may well turn out to be better than its book" - Emilie Bickerton, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Am Ende bleibt er so rätselhaft wie das sinnlose Sterben an der Front, so unergründlich und faszinierend wie die grauen Seelen der Menschen, die in der namenlosen Stadt schuldlos schuldig geworden sind." - Thomas David, Die Zeit

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:

       Grey Souls (By a Slow River in the US) is sodden with death. The events on which the book focusses are set during World War I, in a town only a few miles from the front, and the sounds from the battles and the steady stream of wounded are a constant reminder of the life-and-death struggle nearby, but it is other deaths that hit closer to home.
       The book is narrated by the man who was a policemen there at that time, looking back upon events and the mysteries of those years. He takes his time in allowing his story to unfold, carefully layering it, each additional set of information altering the larger picture -- ultimately to devastating effect.
       Central to his tale is a dominating figure from those times, the local prosecutor, Pierre-Ange Destinat, a cerebral man who could surely have done much greater things in some metropolis, but settled down at the family estate and dominated local legal proceedings. He imposes his own take -- which sometimes proves a bit much for the locals:

Destinat never prosecuted a flesh-and-blood criminal; he defended an idea, simply an idea: his own idea of good and evil.
       Destinat lost his wife at a young age, and he hardly socialised at all. Nevertheless, he was widely respected in the community.
       There are other imposing figures, too: the judge, the mayor. It is still a society in which everyone knows there (and everyone else's) place. Upsets occur, but generally from outside -- so, for example, a teacher hired during the war who proves to be completely mentally unbalanced. But his replacement, a young lady named Lysia Verhareine, though also an outsider, wins everyone over -- except that she, too, is crushed by the times more readily than anyone could have anticipated.
       Lysia comes to live on Destinat's property, and he, like many others in town, is attracted to her, but he's also so stuck in his own ways that he can't bridge the huge gap between them. Nevertheless, her fate is also tied, in some ways, to his.
       It is a murder that matters most, however: a girl of ten, Belle (or Belle-de-jour -- Morning Glory), found strangled in December 1917. It is this case that weighs heavily on many of the characters, including the narrator. The girl, the youngest daughter of the local restaurant owner, was well-known and much-loved, a bright figure of innocence in dark and guilty times. On the one occasion Destinat invited Lysia to dine in his château, it was her father that cooked the meal and Morning Glory that served it.
       Two captured deserters -- condemned to death for that, in any case -- look like good enough suspects, and the one is happy enough to confess to any- and everything anyway, making for a quick resolution to the case. But the narrator had his lingering doubts -- doubts that linger to the time he writes this account, many years later. Clearly, he always had his suspicions about Destinat, and he fashions a narrative in his mind that has the prosecutor snuff out this life because the innocent beauty overwhelms him, too strong a reminder of a grief he never managed to get over, and of a love impossible to attain. There are enough indications to support his idea, but not enough proof to make a case -- certainly not around the time of the murder.
       Eventually, however, the pieces of the mystery all seem to fit into place -- though not entirely as one might have expected. The narrator also proves a more complicated figure than he originally appeared to be, as it becomes clear that he too is overwhelmed by the loss of his wife (a loss arguably caused, at least in part, by his involvement in the case). Warnings are hardly necessary, but he does also remind his readers: "Sometimes books lie." Certainly truth and reality can be hard to bear, and so close to the front there was a lot one turned a blind eye to.
       Presenting the story in a very roundabout way, it takes a while for the whole story to come out. The hesitancy and tangential elaboration don't seem to always add much at first, but it's worth it for that final punch, as devastating (yet inevitable) a resolution as one is likely to find in a novel.
       It's a dark tale, in a world where absolutes and certainty don't fit comfortably. As someone who knows the narrator well tells him:
Souls are never black or white; they're all gray in the end, Dadais. You're a gray soul for sure, just like the rest of us.
       Indeed he is. And the book is very grey, as well, despite the occasional rays of hope. (Tellingly, those bright rays of hope -- Morning Glory, Lysia, and the narrator's wife, Clémence -- all meet tragic ends.) Yet it's not just a grim tale. The narrator's soul-searching and attempts to try to come to terms with his grief, and to understand the fates of some of these others, are compelling, and if the digressions seem misleading, it all does come together very neatly (if not nicely) in the end.
       It's not perfectly done, but it is an impressive effort. Well worthwhile.

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Grey Souls (By a Slow River): Reviews: Les âmes grises - the film: Other books by Philippe Claudel under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Philippe Claudel was born in 1962.

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© 2006-2021 the complete review

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