Daisy Lafarge’s debut novel – she’s also published a poetry collection with Granta – won a Betty Trask award, open to novelists under 35. Paul takes the reader inside the head of a young woman who keeps finding herself involved with older men. Frances is a floundering graduate student, spending the summer in France; after parting ways with an academic she’d been helping with research (and sleeping with), she volunteers at a farm, and gets tangled up with its owner – the charming but manipulative 44-year-old Paul.
The novel explores how a certain feminine, British polite passivity can be taken advantage of, as Frances silently goes along with things other people want and expect of her. Lafarge underpins her heroine’s drift with a convincing sense of helpless inevitability; Frances, like many young women, is so trapped in an invisible cage of people-pleasing and conflict avoidance, she doesn’t know what she wants, or even who she really is. As the affair grinds on, she literally loses her voice – it’s easy for Paul to tell their story for her.
In truth, the blank, detached, listlessly glassy-eyed female protagonist feels a little wearyingly overfamiliar in contemporary fiction, but Paul is a worthy addition to the genre. And art fans get an extra game of spot-the-Gauguin reference: Paul is a modern-day version of the painter. His breezy “spiritual traveller” shtick – gushing about the less uptight culture of Tahiti and Vanuatu – rings extra alarm bells to anyone who knows anything about Gauguin’s own time there.
Lafarge is also strong on the heady, time-stretching disorientation of travelling itself – of being plunged into situations, and struggling to figure them out; of being reliant on the kindness of strangers, and wondering what they might expect in return. She writes about the lush landscape and heat of the south of France with a sensual elegance and sense of foreboding that can verge on precious, but her debut is also highly readable – this novel draws you in as surely as Paul ensnares Frances.