So much crime fiction fits neatly into one sub-genre or another but this French novel is a true one off defying easy classification. The Godmother is a witty noirish social drama/crime novel set in modern-day Paris, centring on the working class ‘immigrant’ communities of the banlieue and, in particular, on one resourceful and enterprising woman. This was a prize winner in France and a big seller across the continent, this little gem deserves an English speaking audience too.
The Godmother is a minor masterpiece of noir crime writing, loaded with edgy cynicism and seasoned with a liberal sprinkling of black humour. I particularly like the sarcasm and irony that reinforces the themes of alienation, racism and stereotyping within French society. Let’s face it, older women behaving badly is an under-represented category in crime fiction. The slightly surreal tone never strays beyond the plausible and the criticism of the system and authority is biting. This novel is as insightful as it is barbed. The Godmother, Patience, is a mild-mannered minor civil servant, paid off the books due to government savings (she gets no pension for a start) until needs must and opportunity presents then she becomes a major drug dealer.
The Godmother is a wonderful piece of original storytelling that captures something of the twenty-first century European dilemma of coming to terms with its own cosmopolitan and diverse make-up. The improbable by not impossible circumstances here have their own logic and the pace is both fast and jaunty. Allow yourself to relax and have a laugh, the deeper points about racism and exclusion will seep into your consciousness anyway.
Patience’s parents were crooks, suffering from a ‘visceral love of money’, in thrall to its power to create and destroy:
“It was the answer to every question. The pre-Babel language that united mankind.”
Paris was like a ‘no man’s land’ for her French Tunisian father and Jewish Viennese mother, two outsiders (‘vulgar foreigners’), who found each other in post-war, post-colonial France. Patience’s father was general manager of a trucking company, Mondiale, in the 70s. Trucking to the ‘shit’ parts of the world: Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Azerbaijan. He only employed ex-cons as drivers solely for their ability to spend a long time alone in a cab, of course. While they took legal goods out, they were free to bring contraband cargoes back to France with the help of her father’s Corsican pied-noir friends – drugs, guns and ammunition. He could be considered ‘a modern day Marco Polo’ opening up trade routes. They lived on ‘the estate’, a special place where money likes to ‘hide in the shadows’. Patience remembers the good times of her childhood, the family holiday in Switzerland. That world is gone.
Now patience is fifty-three, white haired, overweight and has two (semi-estranged) daughters whom she still loves, although she was the mother from hell and they never listened to a word she said. Patience married her prince charming, a man she met in Muscat, Oman, she was set to be taken care of for the rest of her life when he died after only seven years of marriage, leaving her with a babe in arms and a two year old. One month later they were homeless. A bad spell followed before Patience got a flat and a job as a court interpreter; Arabic, which has many distinct dialects, to French; witness statements, interviews, telephone intercepts etc. Patience begins to help some of the suspects out by giving them answers to questions and then she has fun manipulating some translations. One particular case, a man who spent two and half years in jail, losing everything, because of a false charge of rape, with no compensation because he was illegal, angers Patience. As does her lack of pension rights, the system looks down on the people who come before it and the workers like her who’s skills it needs. When Mohamed Benabdelaziz, cannabis grower in a Moroccan village at the base of the Rif mountains, and his nephew Afid become the centre of an operation on drug smuggling Patience sees an opportunity. She is still looking after her mother, who has Alzheimer’s, and is in a care home, it all costs money. Patience begins to empathise with Khadija, Afid’s mother. She’s about to make a decision to interfere in this case that will change her life forever.
“Zero tolerance, zero thought – that about sums up the drugs policy in this country, which is supposed to be governed by people who came top of their class.”
I dare you not to like Patience Portefeux, mother, translator, drug dealer, unwanted (but needed) daughter of immigrants. She has a moral compass and a way of seeing the world that will help readers to see a different side to the people of the banlieue than is normally presented, although you may find her stance on drugs a bit contradictory. Funny, cutting, and driven, I’d rather have her on my side than against me. Patience, so named for her late arrival in the world, abhors violence, The Godmother is nothing like The Godfather.
There’s a lot of humour running through this novel but most of it has a serious point, this is a novel about racism, social stratas, sexism and ageism, the haves and the have-nots and the outright hypocrisy of the system. Totally enjoyable from beginning to end.
The Godmother is the Winner of the European Crime Fiction Prize and the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière. Hannelore Cayre is a novelist, screenwriter and director. The film version of The Godmother, La Daronne, directed by Jean-Paul Salome and starring Isabelle Huppert, will be released later this year. Stephanie Smee’s translation conveys the humour, the sarcasm, and the serious themes of the novel beautifully.
Paul Burke 5/4
The Godmother by Hannelore Cayre
Old Street Publishing 9781910400968 pbk Oct 2019