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Petite Mort, Beatrice Hitchman’s debut novel, opens with a Le Monde article—Paris, 1967—announcing the discovery of a thought long-lost silent film reel from 1914. The article also mentions the mysterious fact that a crucial segment of the film is missing. Following this news brief, the novel moves back in time to 1909, where it effectively begins with two sisters, Adèle and Camille. The two are young, carbon copies of each other, sitting in a tree harassed by local boys, but saved, at the end of this first scene, by the town priest, Pere Simon. Very soon after, we discover that Père Simon plays a much larger role in Adèle’s life: exposing her for the first time to film, and coaching her with acting lessons. He is the impetus for her to run away, in 1913, to Paris, in search of a career on screen. Cinema, we discover, in these first brief chapters, is akin to religion for Adèle—a faith she believes will save her.
Adèle, as protagonist and sometimes narrator, is not terribly sympathetic: she’s haughty and snobbish, insistent on her gifts even if she never displays them, judgmental of all around her. After a number of unsuccessful attempts to ingratiate herself amidst the cinema-gentry, she lands a job as a seamstress at Pathé studios and this new job drastically alters the course of her life. She begins an affair with André, a famous director and husband to tempestuous film star, Terpsichore (real name: Luce), and André soon installs Adèle in his home as his wife’s assistant. Ambitious Adèle proves naïve over the truth of this arrangement—surely it will lead to a role for her—but soon enough, in a series of fraught, blink-and-you-might-miss-them moments, Adèle falls for Luce. I cannot tell much more of the plot without spoiling the central secret of this novel, and this secret—concealed by a labyrinthine structure and an enormous cast of characters—is really the main thing Petite Mort has going for it.
I’m not much of a cinephile, and Petite Mort, throughout, feels very much like a screenplay. There isn’t a ton of character development (though there is plenty of backstory) or emotional depth here—it can be difficult, much of the time, to discern why the characters are behaving the way they are; what, besides trouble, that they want; and who to trust.
Hitchman can craft a pretty sentence, and her explorations of duplicity and doubles, secrets and identity, are interesting, but Petite Mort is jumpy. Like the electricity of Edison—whom André spends a brief stint working for—the current of this novel does not run smooth. It leaps “erratically from point to point, arriving at its destination through the route that suits it best.” The movements back and forth in time, the switches in points of view, the attempt to link the 1967 reporter’s story with Adèle’s (a necessary element, I admit)—the entire montage of scenes is sinuous but unwieldy. As the novel winds to a close, it feels less and less like viewing a film and more and more like unraveling a tangled reel. The mystery at the center of Petite Mort is so obscured by drama that in the end, one almost forgets one is trying to solve it.
Those who love a wild ride will enjoy the ceaseless action of Petite Mort—there is, perhaps because of its structural eccentricities and unlikeable characters, not a dull moment in this book. But those in search of more complex characters and a satisfying conclusion may be disappointed in the simple trickery behind this novel’s smoke and mirrors.
By Beatrice Hitchman
Paperback, 9781846689079, 288 pp.
November 2014 (Paperback Edition)