No matter how much life one has lived, something exists to tell us that it will fade one day. I find myself ruminating on this; the more I see things in my life leave, the deeper implications of their permanence etched as a warning to my future self. Such is the Bible verse, Sirach 44:9, that predates the first pages of And Their Children After Them, winner of the Prix Goncourt, by French author Nicolas Mathieu; an awareness that the people of this story don’t have it different from us or each other, despite their repeated efforts to emphasize the contrary.
The place is Heillange, a fictional city in deindustrialized France, trekking six years in the lives of a reckless new generation sifting through the consequences of their parents’ actions. Appearing in various stages of emotional development and discontent, the novel follows several families as they try to understand the degree of one another’s unhappiness, with an older generation attempting to do better for their children, who will ultimately carry the responsibility of maintaining a home they would much rather leave behind for good.
These teens are subjected to the gradual decay of their city and their families without having the choice for fate to intervene yet: “They were letting their hair grow and turning their sadness into anger, their depression into decibels. Paradise was good and lost, and the revolution would not take place. The only thing left was to make noise.” Though their options are scarce at the start, the novel’s 420 pages cover unprecedented ground that refuses to be constrained.
At Mathieu’s hand, he doesn’t exactly make the central story of Anthony Casati and his cousin particularly groundbreaking on the surface, showing a surplus of debatably unnecessary details that do better at showing his unlikeability than anything else. But, in doing so, he forces readers to look at their conniving and sometimes malicious motivations, getting into the skin of these boys who don’t have abnormal desires but search for their sources in sometimes disrespectful fashion. In the gradual introduction of a stellar supporting cast of friends, antagonists, and authority figures, the novel shows its grace and shamelessly dives into the darkness of first love, familial violence, and mutual grievances, among other things.
William Rodarmor’s first English translation of the novel infuses its own distinctive ambiance to Mathieu’s youthful narrative, conveying Heillange’s naturally suffocating silence with vulnerability and empathy: “Tens of millions of francs’ worth of merchandise… sat in their metal containers, waiting for life to resume.”
“Steph told herself that in Europe you were still lucky enough to be able to disappoint the people who loved you.” It is my thinking that very few American authors have the awareness of language non-native writers such as Mathieu possess, sacrificing the inclusion of a more clearly constructed story for more grounded and lyrical prose and paying off impressively.
Admittedly, the message of And Their Children After Them will be most readily received by a more mature and open-minded audience. The untraditional coming-of-age structure this novel takes on is not for the faint of heart, as it has a tendency to detour into meditative as well as explicit territory critics of the genre may dismiss as unrealistic for this demographic. As someone who might not have picked this book up knowing this and who is not a regular reader of this type of fiction, I concede that there is a level of humanity threaded through this city and its inhabitants that any other narrative of the sort would miss completely.
Sometimes it doesn’t feel right to care about Anthony & Stéphanie’s budding relationship turned lustful, but Mathieu prefers that you at least try, because we become better friends when we don’t hold a grudge.
As a suggestion, it will definitely help to not strain trying to comprehend the title’s meaning right away. It took time for me to see how it suggests a generation that does not exist yet, putting in question what Anthony and others will leave behind for them to unearth. Yet, as they age, they learn the forgiveness necessary for them to move on and save creating more ruckus: “…Ever since he was a kid, experience had taught him that in his world, the price of cowardice is higher than that of pain.” I hope I have the heart to confront inevitability with this amount of courage one day.