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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Gift

Florence Noiville

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To purchase The Gift

Title: The Gift
Author: Florence Noiville
Genre: Novel
Written: 2007 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 97 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Gift - US
The Gift - UK
The Gift - Canada
La donation - Canada
The Gift - India
La donation - France
La donazione - Italia
  • French title: La donation
  • Translated by Catherine Temerson

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Our Assessment:

B : unsettling depiction of mother-daughter issues complicated by mental illness

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
LA Rev. of Books . 17/3/2017 Norman Manea
Publishers Weekly . 19/3/2012 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "The novel is a dramatic introspection and initiation into the tensions and traumas of possessive and poisoned love." - Norman Manea, Los Angeles Review of Books

  • "(M)addeningly reductive; characters are left undeveloped, moments are cut short, the narrative has little depth as it unfolds in a series of mostly two- to three-paged chapters. The reader is left with the impression that the people who populate this book are not "real" human beings, but ghosts, through whom we can see all too easily." - Publishers Weekly

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 Gift begins with a short prefatory section of only a few sentences, but Noiville immediately sets the tone of the novel, in every respect, starkly announcing:

I was ten years old when I lost my parents.
       She immediately draws back, explaining that they are, in fact, still alive, but the little shock remains with the reader. Such play on words is found throughout this short novel, presented in very short chapters -- and applies also to the title: the novel proper opens with the narrator describing visiting her parents in late August, 2005, when the whole family went to their lawyer's office "for the settlement of a gift", a testamentary settlement the parents have apparently decided to arrange now, while they are still alive. But there is another 'gift' at the heart of this story, hereditary in a different way. (In both cases, 'bequest' might be the more appropriate term -- 'gift' seems entirely too cheery for what is going on here.)
       The loss the narrator felt at age ten was a sense of abandonment, magnified many times by actual abandonment, as the girl was sent off to Switzerland for a summer while her manic-depressive mother was once again hospitalized. The scene as father sees off daughter at the train station is heart-wrenching, the inability of parents and children to truly communicate perfectly captured in this small, terrible episode (which the narrator remembers well -- unlike her stay in Switzerland that summer).
       The mother the girl returns to is physically changed, too -- dreadfully fat from the medications she has been given. This, too, comes as a blow to the child:
Even the image of my mother had been shattered and this was unbearable.
       The mother's mental illness weighs heavily on the family, her manic-depressive psychosis poisoning domestic life:
It was impossible to escape from it; in a nutshell we suffered from "passive MDP," akin to what is called "passive smoking."
       The adult looking back at her adolescence recognizes the unfairness of blaming the mother, but also that the situation could not be anything but extremely frustrating for all involved. Escape proves impossible: when she was eleven, the narrator even tried to change her identity by taking a different name -- an attempt: "to go into exile from myself" -- which is the one everyone has knows her by since; when she insisted on the change her parents went along with it -- but it was also a futile rebellion: as she came to recognize: "it didn't change anything."
       The questions that weigh on the narrator now, and that she tries to explore here, are:
how are children affected by their mother's depression ? How does it change them ? How do they pull through it ? And how does it shape the relationship they will later have with their own children ?
       The narrator has daughters now, too, and sees the influence she and family history might be having. Learning about the circumstances of her mother's birth, and then her infancy and childhood, she gets a sense of some of what might be behind all this -- but that doesn't help change the underlying situation.
       With its mix of observation and reflection, The Gift is a solid portrait of the inner and outer turmoil caused by a parent with mental illness, and the difficulties of dealing with it. Much as it begins shockingly -- "We are all orphans" is the opening line, and Noiville suggests, for a moment, that her parents died when she was ten (before revealing the loss was of a different nature) -- so also The Gift ends with a wrenching turn, in an epilogue set only a few months after the testamentary gift was arranged. Here it is the more innocent and harmless interpretation that is presented first, out of the mouths of babes, the narrator's four-year-old daughter, drawing in her coloring book, describing what she saw -- an image that will surely haunt her in later years as she comes to understand what it was she witnessed. The narrator can't quite bear to admit to the horrific truth either -- the book's last sentence describes an action, and not the end-result -- but there's little doubt here about what happened.
       It's almost too powerful an ending for such a slight book (of less than a hundred pages), as Noiville only sketches most of the characters and dynamics. The narrator's sister is barely a presence anywhere, and even the characters she focuses most intently on remain shadowy figures -- her parents, her children.
       The Gift also describes the writing of this account, an attempt at coming to terms with her past and her parents that originally is intended to be a letter addressed directly to them, but then changes into this account -- though still meant very much for them, her reaction and thanks to the 'gift' they have given her. It proves inadequate, however; the actual thanks she then offers are just: "Words that I felt were bland and awkward, as usual", spoken over the telephone. Regardless, the brief but devastating epilogue then suggests ... well, that the gift(s) the narrator received just keep on giving (and still not in a good way).
       Quietly effective -- and coming to a memorable conclusion --, The Gift is a disturbing but ultimately too manipulative piece of fiction. The narrator toys with her readers -- "I was ten years old when I lost my parents" is just one claim that isn't quite what it first seems to be -- and though she does it well there's entirely too much of it (including, for example, her almost complete silence about so many of the other people close to her, which itself speaks volumes).
       Finishing the book, only one thought can come to mind: pity the daughters.

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 June 2012

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The Gift: Reviews: Florence Noiville: Other books by Florence Noiville under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       French author Florence Noiville works for Le Monde.

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© 2012-2021 the complete review

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