Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 14 July 2020

Book review: The Age of Reinvention is a tale of deception and downfall in our times

In this dark fairytale hinged on artifice and false identity, Tuil examines attitudes to race in France and the US.
Karine Tuil was shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt. Jack Guez / AFP
Karine Tuil was shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt. Jack Guez / AFP

The Age of Reinvention is a cautionary tale for the tremulous post-9/11 world.

Two friends, both law students in Paris in the mid-’80s, fall in love with the same woman, the beautiful, beguiling Nina.

Samir Tahar is the son of Tunisian immigrants. His father is dead and his mother works as a cleaning lady.

By contrast, Samuel Baron hails from a Jewish family of intellectuals. Nina and Samuel are a couple, but when news arrives that Samuel’s parents have been killed in a car crash, he leaves his trusted friend to look after his love while he takes his parents’ bodies to Israel to be buried.

The inevitable happens; Nina and Samir begin an affair. Distraught, Samuel attempts suicide claiming that he can’t live without Nina, and wracked with guilt she reluctantly returns to him. Samir, meanwhile, flees the city brokenhearted.

Twenty years later, Nina and Samuel, who have not heard from Samir since his disappearance, are still together. He is a social worker; she works in a department store and does occasional catalogue modelling. Their life together is one of daily struggles. A failed writer, Samuel in particular is “mourning the man he should have been”.

Then, one day, they discover what became of their old friend Samir. He’s now a celebrated lawyer living in Manhattan married to a Jewish woman “raised on milk and honey”, the daughter of one of the wealthiest and influential businessmen in America.

These revelations are shocking enough, but what doesn’t make sense to Nina and Samuel is the fact that Samir now goes by the name Sam, and is passing himself off as a Sephardic Jew whose parents perished in a car accident. He has stolen his old friend’s identity.

Samir’s success reads like a modern-day fairytale, one in which hard work and a few initial innocent white-lies-turned-pitch-black have the same effect as a magic wand. Poof! A Muslim immigrant who grew up in the Parisian banlieues is transformed into one of Manhattan’s Jewish elite, a man who thinks nothing of spending US$300 (Dh1,102) on a shirt, to whom all doors are open.

As with all fairytales though, the illusion cannot last, and when the façade starts to crumble it does so with greater force and destruction than Samir could ever have predicted.

Karine Tuil – who should be admired for the boldness of her exploration of the thorny issues of 21st-century racial prejudice in France and the United States – plots her story like a pro, the twists and turns that lead to Samir’s downfall so teasingly interwoven that when the penny drops it does so with a thunderous crash.

I don’t want to give too many of the details away; all I’ll say is that this is an America with the Kafkaesque Patriot Act in full force, not the best backdrop for a Muslim Arab keeping serious secrets. Unfortunately though, there’s rather less to admire in Tuil’s characterisation. Neither Samir nor Samuel inspire any sympathy. Both are equally exasperating: whining and moaning their way through 400 pages as they compete for Nina, passing her back and forth like some kind of poisoned chalice.

Not that we can necessarily blame them their shortsightedness since, unfortunately, she’s drawn as a cipher, a woman who demonstrates no agency of her own, bar a passive opting-out.

Tuil is clearly attempting to make a point about just how much artifice is involved in the way every one of us presents our identities to the wider world.

She writes each of her characters – even a concierge or a waitress mentioned only in passing – a mini backstory in the form of footnotes, suggesting that what we see is only ever part of the story.

It’s a device not without consideration, but unfortunately it quickly loses its charm. As does her overdependence on the stroke – “This isn’t real, thinks/prays/screams Samuel”; “something had been corrupted/destroyed/soiled forever” – which at best comes across as indecisiveness, and at worst looks like the translation is incomplete.

Given my complaints, perhaps something has been lost in translation though, as the novel clearly struck a chord in Tuil’s native France where it was a bestseller as well as being shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt.

Lucy Scholes is a freelance reviewer based in London, who writes for The Independent, The Observer, The Daily Beast and BBC Culture.

Updated: November 5, 2015 04:00 AM

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