You are smart, but unschooled, a daughter of the poorest illiterate peasantry. Over the decades you have read your Marx and Kant, appreciated Mozart, immersed yourself in 17th century Dutch painting. You smuggle literature home in your shopping bag along with the turnips and cat food. You are Renee Michel and a concierge in a Left Bank apartment block serving the rich. You are an invisible drab, and no-one must ever suspect.
You are precociously intelligent but only twelve and a half. Your sister, studying for her Masters degree at the Sorbonne, is a ‘beautiful person’ of barren soulless talent. Your mother is a vacuous socialist snob while your father is a senior Government official hiding behind his role. You know from Dawkins and all the rest that life is just a pointless primate struggle to reproduce your genes. Surrounded by so much empty posturing and mediocrity, what is the point? You are Paloma Josse and you are determined to commit suicide on your 13th birthday.
A particularly loathsome apartment owner dies and someone new moves in. Wealthy, cultured and thoroughly civilised, perhaps Renee and Paloma, in their daily deceptions, have finally encountered someone they can’t hoodwink. Primary certainties are reworked as the story moves to its shocking conclusion.
This is a beautiful piece of work: erudite, laugh-out-loud humorous and tragic by turns. It can’t have been easy for Alison Anderson to capture in English the sophistication of Muriel Barbery’s writing, but she’s made a fine job of it. Recommended.