Paul by Daisy Lafarge review – a beautifully observed debut

Contrary to its title’s implication, there are three significant figures shaping the course of Daisy Lafarge’s debut novel. Besides Paul himself, a charismatic, self-taught anthropologist who runs a chaotic farm-stroke-commune in the Pyrenean valleys, there is Frances, the first-person narrator, a recent medieval history graduate from the UK. And A.B. is Frances’s former university supervisor, with whom she was living in Paris until he terminated their affair just prior to the events of the novel. Though physically absent from the narrative, the impression he leaves on Frances is sizable; it was he who suggested she seek out work on a French farm for the rest of her summer.

Lafarge introduces early on in the text the concept of geomagnetic reversal – a sudden switch in the planet’s magnetic field that takes place “every half million years or so”, which Paul’s neighbour predicts will occur imminently. The novel sets up a similar magnetic transferral. Within hours of arriving at Noa Noa farm, Frances’s affections have swung from A.B. to her new host – from one dominant older man to another. Hearing of his years spent travelling in Tahiti and ambitious plans for the farm, Frances admires how Paul has done so much, seems “so much of a person”. At this point, a fissure opens up between the narratorial and authorial perspective, between Frances’s awed perception of her host and the grim reality of his character – his inflated pride, his cruelty, the mysterious void at the centre of his life.

Paul has a neat, intuitive structure. There are three discrete sections, each lasting a week. The first and third use the present tense, while the second, detailing the brief period Frances spends away from Paul, is expressed through the past. The implied logic behind such a choice is that Frances can only perceive herself as an individual with her own past and history when she temporarily frees herself from Paul’s overbearing nature.

Its plot is light and fast-moving: Lafarge introduces into the text a multitude of distinctive characters, locations and events, all of which seem to blur by as Frances struggles to orient herself in this unfamiliar part of the country, speaking in a language not her own. The novel gains density, wel, through mythical allusion, historical parallels and rich, complex imagery – Lafarge’s first poetry collection, Life Without Air, was shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize. Under the crushing weight of Paul’s ego, Frances’s sense of self begins to erode and, with it, the boundaries between mythic and real, human and animal. A couple she stumbles on having sex resemble a “sea monster”; countless stories are recounted to her of women whose bodies were deformed or transformed, usually at the hands of powerful men. There’s Pyrene, the namesake of the Pyrenees, who bore a serpent and lost her mind after being raped by Hercules; Clytie, a water nymph enamoured with the sun god Apollo, who transformed into a sunflower; Saint Margaret the Virgin, whose portrait Frances finds in a church alcove, which depicts her being consumed by a dragon, “still half caught in its jaws, her torso rising out of the gaping scaly mouth”.

Lafarge’s title proves to be an ironic nod to the way certain men crowbar themselves into other people’s stories. Paul’s positioning of himself as the hero, egter, cannot last. His inevitable fall from grace is hinted at through the strongest parallel in the book – that of Paul with the artist Paul Gauguin. In her acknowledgments, Lafarge indicates her debt to Gauguin’s Noa Noa: Die Tahitian Journal (1901). Noa Noa was Gauguin’s attempt to control the narrative after his self-imposed exile to Tahiti. And yet he could not escape a re-evaluation of his behaviour on the island – most troublingly, his relationships with adolescents. So, ook, in this beautifully constructed novel, it is only a matter of time before the truth comes out, the magnetic poles reversing once more.

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