Adam Thorpe Home

No Telling

Publication date: 15/05/2003

Synopsis:

Set in 1968 in the Parisian suburbs, No Telling is narrated by twelve-year-old Gilles as he approaches his Solemn Communion, puberty, and some sense of the chaos around him. His home is deeply dysfunctional: a dithering mother, a hard-drinking, womanising uncle who becomes his stepfather, and an older sister, Carole - an unbalanced revolutionary who hasn't danced her ballet steps since the death of their real father. Gilles is blithely unaware that any of this is out of the ordinary, as he and his friend Christophe try and piece together a world from fragments of rumour and hushed adult conversation. There is a deeper trauma here, however, far more shocking than anything Gilles could have dreamt of - a mystery it will take the events of the novel and eight years to resolve.

Set against a backdrop of a turbulent France – as it lurches from rural piety, and a hundred years of terrible history, to a hurried modernity – this is a tour de force of compassion, humour and storytelling brilliance, seen through the eyes of an adolescent boy. Culminating in the Paris riots of May '68, No Telling is a thrilling and beautifully observed study of a boy's bewildered innocence and slowly dawning understanding in a world of open revolt and buried secrets.

This is my neglected child of a novel. Gilles took over the story; it was meant to be a nineteenth-century historical fiction, but turned into a coming-of-age piece about a modest family in France in the 1960s. It has not been translated into French, to the continuing bewilderment of English-reading French friends. May 68 might yet return, of course, in a fresh guise.

Reviews:

Guardian

Elena Seymenliyska: June 12, 2004

Gilles Gobain was born into a family selling industrial vacuum cleaners; he loves to stand in their suburban Parisian showroom and command his alien army, with their flexible tubes for mouths and chrome buttons for eyes. He is five when his father dies and his mother marries his uncle, and 10 when his sister drops out of university and takes him round Paris at night sticking up anti-Vietnam war posters. Adam Thorpe's fourth novel since his acclaimed debut, Ulverton, is a gripping account of the formative years of a sensitive boy, set during France's own 1960s transformation, culminating in the May 1968 riots. Told from the unwittingly astute perspective of a child - alert to every shift of mood, if not its meaning - it is an outstanding book, utterly compelling in its recreation of a period and deeply moving in its portrait of a boy forced to grow up too fast. Its portrayal of the adult world through the eyes of a child is wonderfully funny, too.

Daily Telegraph

Tony Saint: May 22, 2004

Adam Thorpe's latest novel draws the reader into the mind of Gilles, a 12-year-old trapped in the nondescript Parisian banlieue towards the end of what are, for him, the not-so-swinging 1960s. He has a fervently Catholic mother fretting over his forthcoming confirmation, a womanising stepfather and an unhinged sister, and he seeks refuge in his vivid imagination. But events inevitably intrude, and Gilles's moment of epiphany comes not at the church altar but on the violent streets of Paris during the 1968 riots. The catalogue of ill-fortune that befalls Gilles's family threatens to stretch the bounds of credibility. But the book's undoubted strength is in Thorpe's razor-sharp evocation of time and place - the sights, sounds and smells of suburban Paris waft through every page like the smoke from a smouldering Gauloise.

Guardian

Michèle Roberts: June 7, 2003

"I live in Bagneux, near Paris. My sister is in a mental ward because she got nervously depressed. She likes to dance in the nude, in front of people! My mother had my baby brother, but he has a very bad fault in his brain and is in a special home. My father isn't my real father, he's my uncle and he drinks quite a lot. He's taken me fishing only once."

Thus 12-year-old Gilles imagines writing to Menie, the agony aunt on Radio Luxembourg, whose programme he listens to, sprawled on his absent sister's bed, while his parents are working themselves up towards another row downstairs. It's from Menie's show, on a later occasion, that he learns a particular, traumatic truth about what his stepfather has really been getting up to on his nights away as a smooth-talking salesman. The knowledge brings on a shattering migraine.

No Telling is set, crucially, in 1968, the year of what leftwingers call les événements. Bagneux is a dust-filled building-site, a former village completing its transformation from pleasant banlieue into zone industrielle. Gilles begins his story laconically: "I was born into industrial vacuum cleaners." The plate-glass fronted showroom in which he plays alone as an introverted child turns out to be the stage for all kinds of dramas, including theft, fraud, voyeurism and murder. This world of glossy appearances, of shiny posters, plastic pot-plants and "a real woman in a photograph made of cardboard, bigger than me", conceals shabbier undersides. Gilles's quest, forced upon him by the age in which he lives, out of sexual and political innocence towards understanding, is pursued in the face of adult lies, evasions, clichés and consolatory myths.

The members of his family, petits gens cornered by poverty, history and rigidly defined sex roles, make sense of their lives the best way they can. His kind, pious mother Danielle copes mainly by not noticing, or at least not discussing, anything too upsetting. She quotes timidly from women's magazines. A mixture of gullibility, oppressed innocence and bad faith, she is also a mouthpiece for satire: "intellectuals. That's what they're called. You have to work very hard at school to become an intellectual, and then you go to university, and then the world's your oyster. A lot of them just sit around and do nothing but talk." His stepfather Alain is anti-semitic, anti-communist, a racist. His sister Carole secretly joins a slogan-spouting, male-dominated revolutionary group and prints posters condemning the war in Vietnam. Much of the novel's comedy is rooted in the reader's forced perception of the inadequacies of the characters' various vocabularies: political ideology, masculine joshing, Catholic sentimentality, TV sermons.

Gilles, still uncorrupted, seeing life as freshly and amorally as a poet might, creates a gripping first-person narrative of the oddness around him. No need for magic realism when you are a practising Catholic: "One morning the oldest priest, so old and bent he took ages to climb up to the pulpit, gave a sermon about motherhood . . . telling us about a pilgrimage he'd made to a cave whitened by the milk of the Virgin, her breasts so full that the milk had exploded all over the walls . . . I wondered how the Virgin had put her breasts back together after they had exploded."

Not yet in the clutches of his stepfather's need to construct masculine potency and invincibility by denying childhood memories and desires, Gilles, nearing puberty but still a child, engagingly admits to confusion, doubt and ignorance. He loves his mother, with whom he spends a great deal of time, and cares passionately about his sister's distress. The reader cannot help loving him. Much of his sweetness and charm derives from his ironically presented naivety. We guess the novel's three big secrets early on, but this never detracts from our sympathy for Gilles, patiently puzzling away.

The denouement, a stunning and lengthy set piece involving Danielle driving Gilles into central Paris to attend a ballet performance, demonstrates the limitations of Gilles's vision. The city seems oddly crowded, noisy and boisterous: "Three of the policemen or soldiers were bent over by a tree, testing some sort of thick bag on the ground with their sticks . . . A few black helmets with their sticks were helping a girl with long blonde hair under the tree nearest to us. She had her arms around her face and her mouth was wide open, as if she was upset." Gilles finally understands, through his own direct experience of police violence and brutality, what's going on.

This gripping novel leaves one passionately mourning the crushed, imprisoned lives of Carole and Danielle. For them, liberation, the chance to tell their own stories, has not yet begun.

Time Out

Oliver Robinson: May 28, 2003

Sensitised to the world by his mother's frailty and father's philistinism, Gilles Gobain is a product of fear and brutishness. In an effort to preserve Catholic decorum and their son's innocence, his parents conceal a storehouse of family secrets. Thorpe's fifth novel, set in a Parisian suburb in the months leading up to the '68 May riots, is partly about youthful insurrection. But his 12-year-old narrator, sensitive, migraine-plagued Gilles, at times seems complicit in his parents' treachery, desperate to prolong his imprisonment in the padded carapace of childhood.

As the novel begins, communism is creeping up river from the Left Bank. Rural France is threatened too by burgeoning consumerism. But like a Wordsworth or Keats, Gilles has his eye on crocuses and their evanescent bloom. Suburban life, with its boredom, prudishness and nausea, prompts him to develop a baroque fantasy world.

The narrative unfolds through the senses; a fabric of smell and touch - pine needles, church incense.

There is no action as such; the story is sustained by a series of carefully guarded disclosures: an illegitimate child, his stepfather's insurance scam and infidelities. With such an acute awareness of the forbidden, Gilles' tastes are shaped by the taboo.

There's an odd tension here; Thorpe details cramped existences with unfenced lushness. He favours flights of lyricism over psychological complexity. The symbolism is at times roughly cast, and occasionally the duel between town and country is too low-yielding to feed the 500-page heft. However, Gilles' voice – inquisitive, shy, on the brink of sexual enlightenment – sings with authenticity. The anarchists besiege Paris, but for Gilles, as in all tentatively lived suburban lives, the moment of crisis never quite arrives.

Scotland on Sunday

Andrew Biswell: May 18, 2003

THIS is a historical novel with grand ambitions. Weighing in at just over 500 pages, it chronicles the chaotic events of the Paris student uprisings in 1968. Few aspects of French life escape Thorpe's detailed scrutiny - the book takes in religion, the collapse of the nuclear family, popular culture, the rise of revolutionary politics, the aftermath of the Algerian war and the brutality of General de Gaulle's regime.

The hero-narrator is Gilles, aged just 13, the product of a strict Catholic education, who believes wholeheartedly in saints, angels and the infinite strangeness of the mercy of God. When his father, an industrial vacuum cleaner salesman in a suburb of Paris, dies suddenly, his mother marries her brother-in-law, Alain, who inherits the business.

Gilles's wayward older sister, Carole, moves to central Paris, where she becomes involved in the student protest movement. There is an entertaining chapter early on in which the two of them are sent on a reckless fly-posting mission in the city. Thorpe captures the revolutionary language of the 1960s very convincingly - Carole speaks with emphatic disgust of the "evil bourgeois parasites" against whom she is fighting, fully persuaded that capitalism is on the point of collapsing under the weight of its internal contradictions. Alain takes a rather different view when he rages against the "beatniks, commies, gypsies" and "anarchos" threatening to undermine organised society. This conflict within the family is reflected in the wider events with which the novel concerns itself. As Carole becomes pregnant and slowly loses her sanity, her decline is witnessed by Gilles and conveyed with great pathos. It is at moments such as this that Thorpe fully demonstrates his powers as a novelist, working hard to represent these traumatic events through the eyes of his adolescent narrator.

Thorpe also dramatises the racial unease of the period, chiefly through the casual xenophobic utterances of Uncle Alain. It is clear that Gilles's extended family is being presented - a little heavy-handedly at times - as a microcosm of French society in 1968. The innocent, half-comprehending voice of Gilles himself is what holds the novel together. We are shown the evasions and deceptions of bourgeois family life in all their complexity, but above all Thorpe is concerned with the sheer embarrassment of an adolescent trying to connect with the adult world, dearly wanting to say and do the right thing but not knowing how. This is not so much a political novel as a coming-of-age story with a revolutionary backdrop.

Ignorance of French is no obstacle to appreciating Thorpe's heroic reconstruction of the spirit of 1968, although readers already armed with a knowledge of French language and political history are likely to get more out of it. No Telling is bound to satisfy those who have enjoyed Thorpe's previous books. For anyone else who is not yet aware of this considerable writer, this would be an excellent place to start.

Scotsman

John Burnside: May 17, 2003

There is a scene in Adam Thorpe's No Telling that describes, in the cool, almost detached, manner of a person in shock, what happens when a teenage boy and his mother, an utterly unmenacing bourgeoise, find themselves in exactly the wrong place at exactly the wrong time (in this case, the streets of Paris, May, 1968): "We hurried towards the policemen and the one with the goggles on his chin turned round again. He was holding one of those long sticks. He looked quite young. He shouted at us to get the f*** out of it or else. My mother stopped. He shouted at her again to get the f*** right out of it and my mother replied, in an angry voice, 'Do you mind?' and stepped forward again and the policeman's stick went up in the air and he ran towards her a couple of paces and brought the stick down on my mother's head. The stick seemed to be bendy as it came down. Two of the other policemen saw what was going on and ran forward to stop him. Then their bendy sticks went out more to the side and came swishing back onto my mother's head and shoulders."

It's a scene with which we are all too familiar, from Gaza, or Baghdad or Genoa, a scene in which a precise combination of indifference and arrogance leads to random, state-sanctioned violence - yet Thorpe manages to make it fresh, to give it the surprise value of those famous Paris Match photographs which showed teenage girls in trendy macs and willowy boys in jeans being mercilessly, yet also rather casually, beaten by police officers. In its matter-of-fact way, the boy's story cries out to the heavens for pity, yet it never pleads and later, when, in an equally casual and off-hand manner, an officer takes pity on the boy, the note of absurdity Thorpe introduces inspires both relief and dismay, balancing what has gone before, even as it deepens our sense of everyday - one might say - existential horror.

The boy in question is Gilles, and the absurd and the wonderful permeate his life in more or less equal measure. That absurd note is sounded by the very first sentence in the book, with its nicely sarcastic echo of David Copperfield - "I was born into industrial vacuum cleaners" - but the note of wonder is always there too, tempered by a child's confusion in an adult world where nothing is as it seems.

Gilles, whose father has died in mysterious circumstances, is raised in the dreary suburbs by his mother and an uncle named Alain who, "in church one day with a lot of other people ... got up and married Maman", (in a book full of sly literary echoes, we should note that, when his similarity to the tragic prince of Elsinore is pointed out, Gilles is confused: the only Hamlet he knows of is a cigar) but he is soon wandering the 1960s subculture of Paris with his wayward and slightly crazed sister, Carole, and discussing the politics of Catholicism with the rather sinister but intriguing priest, Père Phare, who points out that, though Jesus was poor, "the Vatican is doing business" even as they speak. It is Phare - an unexpected beacon in the darkness of suburbia - who exhorts Gilles to "think about these things. You mustn't walk through life like a zombie."

Not thinking, however, is a virtue the powers-that-be prize more than anything, because thinking leads to trouble. The seemingly amiable Oncle Alain, for example, casually suggests the solution to the Vietnam problem is a single hydrogen bomb: "'You think commies care about innocent souls? They don't even care about their own. They don't believe in the individual. Or private property. Or God.'

'Horrible,' said my mother, with an exaggerated shudder.

'Or decent suits,' he added. 'Or power dinghies'."

Yet it isn't just the socio-political order that is preserved by ignorance and unthinking acceptance: on the everyday, domestic level, secrets are kept and mysteries are concealed, and lies are seen, not just as necessary, but unavoidable. As he moves between the chaos of the city and the boredom of the suburbs, Gilles tries to make sense of it all, to untangle the web of fantasy, gossip and lies to get at a truth that he will never be able to verify, but which, at the end, leaves him both alienated and free, or if not free, then prepared for the possibility of freedom.

What the cost of that preparedness is should not be revealed other than by a reading of this extraordinarily beautiful and moving novel, the best yet from one of the finest and most underrated writers working in English today.

Daily Mail

Clare Colvin: May 16, 2003

AT ONE point in this evocative novel set in Sixties Paris, the 12-year-old narrator, Gilles, wonders 'why it was so complicated, being a human being.'

Gilles comes from a deeply dysfunctional family. His mother is ineffectual, his stepfather a womaniser, and his sister an unbalanced revolutionary. They seem perfectly normal to Gilles as a child, but as he grows up he realises there is something odd about them. The No Telling of the title takes on a double meaning as submerged secrets rise to the surface.

There are echoes of Hamlet in the story - Gilles's real father died after an unexplained fall in his vacuum cleaner showroom. Not long after, his mother married Gilles's uncle.

While his stepfather lurches from one failed business venture to another and his sister falls into Ophelia-like madness, Gilles experiences the torments of puberty and religious guilt. Then he is inadvertently caught up in the riots of May '68.

The unprovoked attacks by the police on innocent passers-by are based on documents of the time, and still have the power to horrify.

Thorpe, author of Ulverton, has a needle-sharp insight into the French psyche, transmuted through the eyes of a child. This illuminating novel should be in line for the year's literary awards

Daily Telegraph

Claire Messud: May 03, 2003

'It's nice, the future," observes Gilles Gobain, the 12-year-old protagonist of Adam Thorpe's new novel. "But we've got to get there first, chum," his uncle and stepfather replies. And the path, it transpires, is far from clear. Set in Bagneux, a suburb of Paris, in 1968, No Telling is the ambitious account both of an ordinary boy with an extraordinary burden of misfortune, and of the tumultuous moment in which he comes into consciousness. France is racing as fast as possible from the heaped and hastily hidden miseries of its recent past towards a future neon-lit and sparkling in principle, but in practice uncomfortably confused. Gilles's reflection on his mentally unbalanced elder sister Carole might well stand as an assessment of the nation: "I pictured my sister as having a deposit of sludge inside her, made up of all the interesting, dark things. Above that was this new, clear water we were swimming carefully through, between shampoo bottles and tumble-dryers and tubes of hand cream."

Appropriately enough, the Gobain family deals in vacuum cleaners, from a large, glittering showroom built on to the front of their house. Following the death of Gilles's and Carole's father in an accident in this very showroom in 1960, their uncle Alain has taken the reins of the household and the business. An enterprising wheeler-dealer with an eye for the ladies as well as a taste for drink, Alain is also hapless, his schemes always apparently doomed. Financial ruin hangs with increasing menace over the family. This anxiety is nothing, however, next to the sorrows of the Gobain children. In addition to Gilles, there was Nathalie, a sister miscarried and only rarely referred to. There is Carole who, after dropping out of university and a brief stint playing the revolutionary in Paris, comes home to lose her wits and in turn be lost, apparently forever, to an institution. And there is tiny Nicolas, whom Gilles persists in believing, against all the evidence, is his brother rather than nephew, a baby born severely mentally handicapped and consigned, within months, to an unmentionable facility.

Through this darkness, in which lurk further unsavoury secrets, Gilles trips with near abandon, preoccupied by boyish larks with his friend Christophe, by a crush on his posh cousin Jocelyne, by his religious education, and by his sometimes astute, sometimes bumbling attempts to parse the world around him.

No Telling is a dense and rewarding novel. But it is also a curious one, a languorous, almost ambling trail through adolescence punctuated by dramatic set-pieces. The first of these involves young Gilles, at Carole's side, printing subversive anti-war posters in a Parisian squat and posting them illicitly in the dead of night. (The Gobain parents let their younger child roam the city streets each weekend with Carole, mystifyingly unaware that she has neither fixed abode nor income.)

The second, and most awkward, recounts the appearance of a young Muslim, Khaled, to guide the lost Gobains in their car through the maze of a poor Arab neighbourhood. Gilles's parents are predictably racist here, so that, in their telling, "Khaled had got a free lift ... and it was lucky we three were still alive"; while Gilles comes to his first political awareness, his parents "had cheapened themselves with their meanness. It was a strange moment for me, feeling this."

The novel's culminating piece may not be any more politically nuanced, but it is considerably more powerful, a riveting 100-page tour de force describing Gilles and his mother caught up in the first Paris riots of May 1968. In the course of the hasty denouement that follows, tears are shed, plot threads niftily resolved, and long-buried secrets brought efficiently to light. Not simply a boor, Uncle Alain is revealed also as poignant and pitiable; Carole is shown, somewhat tenuously and at the risk of cliché, to have been driven to insanity by a childhood crisis long-hidden from Gilles.

Meticulously observed, diligent and thorough in its depiction of Gilles's mundane fears and fantasies, carefully over-determined in its commentary upon the society of the times, this strong but sedate novel becomes, in its last third, impossible to put down. No Telling feels, in large part, most humanly true when it is least dramatic. The twists and resolutions of its concluding chapters are too tidy to satisfy fully. But in its extraordinary and prolonged climactic scenes - from the streets to the ballet to the prison at Nanterre - the novel surpasses itself, rings both taut and true, and brings us, with peculiar, living force, all the conflicting themes that assail young Gilles Gobain and preoccupy his creator.

Economist

Anon: April 26, 2003 U.S. Edition

ADAM THORPE is best known for his first novel, Ulverton (1992), in which he renders, with uncanny authenticity, the voices of a dozen villagers, rough and smooth, across four centuries of English rural life. Here, in this latest novel, history is no longer garrulous. The narrator is Gilles Gobain, a dreamy adolescent from a bleak suburb of Paris in the months before May 1968 - his first communion. His stepfather sells industrial vacuum cleaners. He can only tell us what he knows.

History for him is like family - intimate, half understood, repetitive: 1870, 1914, 1939, the Algerian war. History is comic-book death agonies with his friend in the derelict grounds of the Gestapo HQ; it is suddenly raised voices at a family gathering; it's a Jewish name stitched into his sister's smart suit, picked up second hand; it's his stepfather's wordless gesture about Algerian atrocities - a swipe across the genitals and into the mouth.

The present is similarly full of unmentionables: his sister's illegitimate baby, which their devoutly Catholic mother tells him is hers; the sister's anarchist politics and then her madness; his stepfather's insurance scam and infidelities. Everyone tells him not to tell, to keep it to himself. Gilles's gradual understanding of "it" is the core of the book, the price of his innocence. The reader, of course, can see the whole rotten picture, plum ripe for May 1968, especially in the brilliantly realised figure of Alain, the stepfather: a blokeish racist petit bourgeois. But Mr Thorpe's skill is to keep us at Gilles's level, somewhere between Meccano and his first kiss.

It is beautifully done. Mr Thorpe perfectly captures the inconsequential nature of adolescence - heart-thumping intensity, casualness, pretence and honesty. Poetry too. At one point Gilles is overwhelmed by some crocuses and feels that together they are eternal and the same. Then he corrects himself and makes a plain landing: "No we weren't really the same, but very close - more like a best friend." In the end, it is that plainness which makes the climax of the book such powerful reading - the Paris riots into which he and his mother accidentally stumble.