Sadly for Elena Mauli Shapiro, a clever gimmick alone does not make a book good. Being an absolute sucker for gimmicks – particularly visual ones – I was disappointed to find that this ambitious debut novel failed to pull me in.
As a young girl, Shapiro came upon a box of pictures, letters and keepsakes belonging to a Louise Brunet. As an adult, she has fictionalised the owner of this box, using its contents to tell a story. This idea appealed to me and turned out to be quite sweet.
Set in the first half of the twentieth century, 13, rue Therese is frame structured by Trevor Stratton, an American scholar who comes across the keepsake in his office drawer. As Stratton goes through the box, we are shown his “findings” through “documentation”. The artefacts form a visual component, along with Stratton’s recounting the owner’s story. This is a tale brimming with sex, impulsiveness, confusion, death and all in equal parts.
The images throughout are engaging, anchoring the otherwise scattered narrative. I like to see an author brave enough to play with form in her first novel; unfortunately, it doesn’t take long to realise that this is pretty much the best this book has to offer.
It’s hard to figure out whether the confusion in the text is intentional or not. Having spread the story over parallel time lines, past and present chronology often became mixed up. The book’s objective is to show that times collide and stories muddle, but I felt that much of the confusion was unnecessary – more the result of bad structural planning than sweet, mingling storylines.
Shapiro’s decision to have a man narrate what is an incredibly personal tale of a woman discovering and enjoying her sexuality in the 1920s, seems strange. At times she uses masculine language that seems incongruous with this tale of female consciousness and sexual awakening. There are many word choices which at times seem grotesque and distracting, breaking the story’s flow. Louise – through Stratton – talks about her “waning menses”, “her hysterical womb” and her anger becomes a “silent female storm”. Shapiro deserves points for pulling it off what was certainly a difficult narration, though it did suppress what could have been a much lovelier story.
Where Shapiro opts for simplicity, the prose shines. A man who wishes for a female child but has produced only boys, “his life is continuously saturated in boyness”, is a prime example, but unfortunately this isn’t enough to instil order and coherence to the messy narrative.
This debut novel from Elena Mauli Shapiro has a great visual gimmick and this may just be enough to get you to the end. Moments of great writing are there, but overall the execution is somewhat fumbled.
–> This review first appeared in Issue 2 of the RMIT flagship magazine, Catalyst.