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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Birthday Party

Laurent Mauvignier

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To purchase The Birthday Party

Title: The Birthday Party
Author: Laurent Mauvignier
Genre: Novel
Written: 2020 (Eng. 2023)
Length: 446 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Birthday Party - US
The Birthday Party - UK
The Birthday Party - Canada
Histoires de la nuit - Canada
Histoires de la nuit - France
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • French title: Histoires de la nuit
  • Translated by Daniel Levin Becker

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting approach, though style practically overwhelms substance

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 2/2/2023 Jonathan McAloon
The Guardian A 17/1/2023 Anthony Cummins
Le Monde . 9/9/2020 Raphaëlle Leyris
The NY Times Book Rev. . 29/1/2023 Martin Riker
The Spectator A 28/1/2023 Lee Langley
The Times . 26/1/2023 Susie Goldsbrough
TLS . 10/3/2023 Russell Williams
Wall St. Journal . 20/1/2023 Sam Sacks
World Lit. Today . 5-6/2023 Thomas Nolden

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Birthday Party’s uninspiring setting is warning enough that something dreadful is going to happen. (...) Mauvignier articulately unpicks the thoughts of emotionally inarticulate characters (.....) The narrative’s leisurely pace is put under pressure by circumstance but insists on holding off resolution. Daniel Levin Becker’s translation renders Mauvignier’s prose as fluid, often lovely (.....) Mauvignier’s erudite thriller proves as interested in the grander deceptions of storyline as it is the ways we deceive ourselves." - Jonathan McAloon, Financial Times

  • "(I)ts remorseless narrative logic likewise has us reading from behind our hands, as we watch its ensemble cast stumble into catastrophe. (...) Mauvignier’s ability to keep the shocks coming -- to say nothing of his knack for renewing a cliche or two, whether he’s writing about Stockholm syndrome or sex work -- are among the qualities that make this riveting novel so nastily effective. Managing dynamic action as well as split-second psychological shifts (a rare feat; think peak Ian McEwan), the whole shebang culminates in an extravagantly choreographed set-piece blow-out of nigh-on unbearable jeopardy." - Anthony Cummins, The Guardian

  • "If I start by calling Laurent Mauvignier’s The Birthday Party a psychological thriller, understand that this means what you probably think it means, but also something else. It means a nail-biter plot, but also a focus on characters’ interior worlds so detailed that at times I forgot there was a plot at all. It is psychological, on the one hand, and a thriller, on the other, as if the book were two books at once. (...) (N)ot an ironic thriller, but one that truly thrills. But it is equally interested in how the sensational and the mundane confront each other, in literature and in life." - Martin Riker, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Imagine a Stephen King thriller hijacked by Proust. Clammy-handed suspense, nerve-shredding tension, but related in serpentine, elegant prose, each climax held suspended -- deferred gratification. What Javier Marías did for the spy story, Laurent Mauvignier does for terror. (...) The book takes its time, and as the pressure builds, you may wonder whether violence will explode before the end of the next exquisitely meandering sentence. Be patient. When something happens, it happens very fast indeed. The Birthday Party explores memory, revenge and love tested to the limit." - Lee Langley, The Spectator

  • "The Birthday Party is characteristically stylish and intellectually ambitious, but it is also built around an immersive, suspenseful story: it is a thriller that experiments as much as it thrills. (...) The tension ratchets up thanks to Mauvignier’s mobile narrative perspective: his gaze dances deftly between storytelling and the consciousnesses of our protagonists. (...) (T)his is also a remarkably open book, since it invites itself to be read in a number of ways. (...) Mauvignier’s shifting narrative also allows for a symbolic reading. This is a novel about remembering the past, or not remembering and the repressed memories returning all the same. (...) Daniel Levin Becker’s translation is excellent -- nimble and accurate throughout -- and does justice to Laurent Mauvignier’s suggestive prose. The title, though, is less successfully rendered." - Russell Williams, Times Literry Supplement

  • "Laurent Mauvignier’s 444-page-long novel is a painfully slow burn, and yet it provides for a most compulsive read. (...) With the pace, the persistence, and the sheer power of a cutterhead drilling a tunnel through the darkness of a mountain, Mauvignier penetrates the past and the present of his characters’ private lives and feelings. (...) (L)iterary history appears to catch up with the author, whose innovative and powerful stylistics turn out to be spent in service of a tale that has been told so many times before" - Thomas Nolden, World Literature Today

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:

       The birthday being celebrated in Laurent Mauvignier's novel is that of Marion Bergogne, her fortieth. She lives with her husband Patrice and young daughter Ida in out-of-the way La Bassée -- or rather a hamlet nearby, Three Lone Girls Stead, with only three houses to it. Patrice has taken over the family farm there -- a fairly hopeless undertaking, which his two younger brothers fled from. Beside the Bergognes', one house is that of the fairly successful painter Christine De Haas, who retreated here from the Paris art-world; the other house is uninhabited and up for sale.
       Patrice is floundering some -- deep in debt, without any real prospects -- but he loves his family and is set to celebrate his wife, buying her a too-expensive present and carefully making the arrangements for the small get-together to which only Christine and two of Marion's co-workers have been invited (with these latter two set only to arrive later in the proceedings),
       Patrice and his wife found each other via a dating site about a decade earlier -- "anywhere else, I never would've found a woman like her", he admits -- and he is still kind of amazed that he landed a woman like this. He convinces himself that they have a solid relationship, but has to admit some things aren't going as well as he'd like, noting:

how they've made love less and less often, once a week, then once every two weeks, then once a month and now every now and then he knows Marion allows him a few caresses that she doesn't take too seriously, that she doesn't want, he can feel it
       Both Christine and Marion seem a bit out of place in this place; each, clearly, has sought escape from something. And, from the beginning, there's also a sense that the past may be catching up with them, with Christine receiving threatening anonymous letters. It's Marion, however, who has been carrying a lot more with her all these years -- "all she swore never to tell anyone".
       Marion thought she escaped her past -- but it catches up with her here:
     You've always been that way, haven't you ? You really thought we'd forget you ?
     Is that true, Marion ?
     Marion, no ?
     Seriously ?
     Seriously, Marion, that's what you thought ?
       As the time for the birthday party approaches, others have other plans, and impose themselves, first on Christine -- who grudgingly helps prepare Patrice's festivities, understanding: "things have been planned and she has her role to play" -- and Ida, and then Patrice. The key player, Marion, is a later arrival, because of work -- where there are also things for her to deal with --, landing then in what turns out to be quite a different surprise party.
       The Birthday Party is a deeply interior novel, the narrative shifting around between the different characters and describing in depth and close detail their actions and, especially, their perceptions -- what they are thinking and how they are processing events. All of this is presented very much in the flowing and often uncertain way that thoughts go through one's minds, events registered and seen. Mauvignier's sentences and descriptions often run on at great length -- a kind of hyperrealism employed, not least, so that he can reach a point where:
all at once the hyperrealism disintegrates, breaks down into incomprehensible blocks -- like landslides -- the void opening up beneath them
       The build-up in the novel is slow and careful; in many ways the presentation of the novel feels very cinematic, with Mauvignier suggesting, for example:
     Now what happens goes very quickly, and it's as though only a very long slow-motion shot can make it visible.
       In fact, however, much of the novel feels like a slow-motion shot -- with constant lingering close-ups (very close ups).
       The novel is written in the present tense, making for a sense of immediacy, of being in the moment, the reader side by side with the characters every step of the way as the tension mounts -- with Mauvignier then even trying to heighten the tension with a prospective glimpse:
     But also soon: the gunshots.
     Soon: seven shots ringing out in the emptiness of the night, four of which will hit their target,the others getting lost somewhere in a piece of furniture or a wall.
       The title of the French original is Histoires de la nuit -- 'Stories of the Night' -- and the novel is certainly that, though a much darker and longer tale than the kind Marion tells Ida at bedtime. Mauvignier is deeply concerned with the telling of the tale, with style meant not only to support but also to actually create substance. The Birthday Party is a horror story, and Mauvignier tries to build much of that sense of horror through style.
       It is, in a way, a tour de force: Mauvignier goes all in on his approach, and we do indeed get a very good sense of each of the characters and what they are going through; we see each brick, as it were, in the build-up, described in such detail that we can practically feel the brick in our hands. It is a lot, however -- the novel is nearly four hundred and fifty pages long -- and yet also spread a bit thin: by giving access to so many characters and constantly shifting the vantage points, the overall effect is, ironically, somewhat dissipated; again -- and especially in this sense (and for all its interiority), The Birthday Party is big-screen cinematic rather than bookishly intimate.
       The Birthday Party can feel like an exercise in writing, in exploring how to explore horror. With such a focus on the telling of the story, that also weighs it down: less can be more, but Mauvignier too rarely risks it. It is an impressive piece of writing, but doesn't quite achieve all that Mauvignier seems to have hoped for.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 March 2023

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The Birthday Party: Reviews: Laurent Mauvignier: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Laurent Mauvignier was born in 1967.

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© 2023 the complete review

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