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Claire Messud's sweeping novel borrows from her own 'Strange Eventful History'

W. W. Norton & Company

Claire Messud's new novel, This Strange Eventful History, is a cosmopolitan, multigenerational story that, paradoxically, sticks close to home.

Messud drew her novel from a handwritten memoir of over 1,000 pages authored by her paternal grandfather. This side of Messud's family were Pied-Noirs, French Algerians expelled from their homes in 1962 when Algeria won its independence from France.

Displacement, both political and personal, is Messud's timely subject here. After being forced from their home, the fictional Cassar family moves from Algeria to Europe to South and North America, never feeling quite settled in these different locales or in themselves.

The opening section of the novel focuses on June 14, 1940, the day the Germans conquered Paris. Gaston Cassar is a French naval attaché serving at the consulate in Greece. His wife, Lucienne, and their two children, along with a dependent aunt, have fled Greece hoping to reach the safety of their home in Algeria.

The perspective toggles back and forth between their experiences and Gaston's — particularly his career-damaging decision not to heed Gen. Charles de Gaulle's call to his fellow Frenchmen to join him in exile in London. Gaston felt he needed to hear from Lucienne before he made a decision. She's "his life," "his anchor" and "his rock"; throughout the story, we readers will frequently be told that Gaston's marriage to Lucienne "seemed ... to be the masterpiece of both their lives."

As she does throughout the novel, Messud tucks in delayed "reveals" about the characters; so it is that deep into the story, we learn that Lucienne is 13 years older than Gaston. In the novel's final pages, this unusual age disparity becomes devastatingly meaningful.

I'm a Herman Wouk fan, so I don't mean this as an insult when I say there's a bit of a Winds of Warfeel to this panoramic opening section. The chaos of train stations crammed with terrified pushing bodies, the international cast of characters temporarily marooned, the overall sense of a world "in free fall."

Messud could have continued on in this fashion, tracing how the larger forces of history shaped the family's destiny. But something much more interesting begins to happen after we leave World War II behind. The narrative skips forward in time at jagged intervals and the perspective shifts to different members of the Cassar clan. As years speed by, characters change — sometimes drastically — from the people we readers originally thought they were. Not only human events, then, but human personality is unstable in Messud's family saga.

For instance in 1940, Gaston and Lucienne's son, François, is a responsible kid, solicitous of his frail younger sister Denise. Leap ahead roughly a decade and François is now a self-absorbed college student in America — the kind of dreamer who drives to Key West to find "the end of the road" and his "existential self."

Fair enough, after all, the Beat Movement is in the air. But when we next see François in Part III of this thick novel, it's through the disappointed eyes of his WASPy wife, Barbara: Perhaps, she reflects, she made a mistake marrying a man "whose relationship to the known world ... would always be, ... askew, at an uneasy angle." Still later, in middle age, François is given to eruptions of fury that drive Barbara and his daughters away. Who is this person?

The more radical changes within characters' selves are, of course, wrought by time. François — once so alive in his anger — fades in old age into a version of his courtly father, Gaston. In what could well be the verdict of the novel, Barbara looks at the diminished François and declares to herself: "all life and the generations suddenly collapsing like an accordion."

Messud says in her "Acknowledgments" that This Strange Eventful History is one of those "books [that] takes a lifetime to write ..." The novel certainly has the stately sweep and weight of a magnum opus, but I don't think Messud is simply praising her own accomplishment. As I've said, this is a novel about displacement, both political and personal. And, you have to have lived a while to write, as Messud does here, with such intimate melancholy about how time messes with us all, displacing us from earlier versions of ourselves.

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.