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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Free Day

Inès Cagnati

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To purchase Free Day

Title: Free Day
Author: Inès Cagnati
Genre: Novel
Written: 1973 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 143 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Free Day - US
Free Day - UK
Free Day - Canada
Le jour de congé - Canada
Le jour de congé - France
  • French title: Le jour de congé
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Liesl Schillinger
  • With an Interview with Inès Cagnati

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Our Assessment:

A- : triste and bleak; well done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 10/9/2019 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Readers will be invested in this young woman’s demand for dignity" - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Free Day is narrated by teenage Galla, the oldest girl in an extremely poor family who, against the wishes of her parents, insists on continuing her education and now attends a boarding school some twenty miles from the family farm. Her bicycle is: "the most precious thing I'll ever own", because: "without my bicycle I couldn't go to the high school"; even the bus fare, for her visit home every two weeks, would be beyond the family's meager finances.
       Galla usually returns home every second weekend, but Free Day describes an exceptional weekend in between when she also ventures home. The novel describes the hardship of the trip, back and forth, and what she does and doesn't find at home, revealing also her complicated relationship with her family, which she also constantly reflects on.
       The family farm is on terrible land:

In the bleached-out soil at our place, the only thing that grows is stones. Others harvest their crops, we gather stones. We gather them one by one, painstakingly. We dig in the earth to flush out the ones that are hiding. We put them n piles at the edge of the fields, and the piles are enormous. Yu think you are all done. And then, as soon as my father starts working the soil, other stones appear. The earth secretes them. We gather them again with care, we hunt them as if we were panning for gold, we dig them up unstintingly. And they always come back. Everything dies in our blanched land. But the stones flourish. With all the stones we've gathered, you could build all the pyramids and bury yourself inside.
       The family dream is to find better land to work, but there's no escape for them, not while they only work this terrible land; Galla realizes education is the only possible way the family could get away from this desolate patch. Her ambition is to afford them a better plot somewhere -- though, tellingly, she does not want to be part of that. She sees herself continuing to move. For now, however, she's still closely tied to family and farm.
       Galla deeply loves her mother -- even as her mother begs her, at each visit, not to leave. The family relied on her to take care of her younger siblings, and Galla loves (most of) them, but she knows she can't get stuck there and that has to go back to school, for all their sakes. At school, meanwhile, she tells everyone her sisters are all dead; the reality of her life isn't one she can share with her classmates, not even her one close friend, Fanny.
       Even though relatively close to town, the family farm is cut off, and a separate reality. Not even the mail reaches them -- the daughters see to that -- and they live in almost complete isolation. Yet it is Galla who is most an outcast, no longer that integral part of the family-unit, but also not truly accepted in the school community, where she stands out and apart as well. Her friendship with the popular and attractive Fanny has lessened the outright hostility of her classmates, but she still hardly fits in.
       On this weekend when she goes to visit her family we also see how she no longer belongs there: when she arrives, her father doesn't even let her in, barking at her: "Get out of here !". He's a rough, brutal man, and Galla doesn't seem overly surprised by his reaction to her appearance; she expects her mother will eventually come and let her in, and hangs around in anticipation: "I was eager for my mother to come out so I could go in". (It's typical of her now somewhat strained relationship with her family that the family home doesn't stand simply open to her, but rather that she needs to be welcomed in again.) She sleeps in the barn's utility shed, with the dog; she's used to difficult conditions, and she can handle this as well, especially after the long, arduous bicycle ride.
       Galla feels guilty. She lashed out at her mother on her last visit, and she feels terrible for doing so; she loves her mother more than anything. That's why she's come, to try to make up for it. She even stole some things from school, which she has brought as a sort of peace offering -- another source of guilt. All this is, of course, compounded by her sense of letting her family down, of not being there to help. And, as the memories she relates then also show, she has other reasons to feel guilty, such as the tragic death of one of her sisters.
       Galla is beaten-down and sad but remains resilient. She acknowledges: "Everything was so sad and weary, this deserted world, everything", but she still presses on, hopeful (though hardly in a cheerfully optimistic way) and determined. She doesn't wallow in her misery -- remarkably straightforwardly accepting: "It's so sad: my whole life, and being me" (while quietly pressing forward to what she hopes will be a better future, without daring yet to really believe it's possible) -- and doesn't demand sympathy; for such a bleak novel, Free Day is, thanks to her attitude, bearable.
       Galla's fierce independent streak and refusal to give in to her circumstances, at home or at school, help too, as does an inner rage that is mostly controlled but simmers and has occasionally burst forth -- as in the lovely recollection:
I wanted the world to break into pieces like the bitter pomegranates I stole from my aunt's gardens, which burst into a thousand red sparks when I hurled them with all my strength against the wall of my aunt's house because she didn't want me to steal her pomegranates. I longed violently for the world to explode in bloody fireworks. It didn't happen. Nothing you wish for ever happens. I know that all too well. It doesn't matter.
       Galla's trip is not a success; she returns to school without being able to apologize to her mother. At school, she also face gatekeepers -- there's a hated concierge ("Concierges and their families should be done away with"), and there was also the weekend pass she was supposed to get signed (or at least forge a signature on), which she forgot to do. But when she arrives she is also entrusted with the key to the dormitory, so that she can go straight to bed -- something that she can hardly believe (symbolic also of the school having become her true home, even as she doesn't quite realize it at this point).
       Galla is intently focused on herself, so much so that she fails to recognize much that she encounters over this weekend. If not lost in self-pity, she is somewhat blinded by her almost entirely self-centered thoughts. Even on her return, she is so used to all her classmates treating her as different that she fails to see anything remarkable about their attitudes towards her -- making the story's final blow all the more devastating.
       In a TV interview with Cagnati printed as an appendix to the novel, the author is asked whether childhood was a happy time for her; she answers unequivocally: "For me, unhappy, completely unhappy". Galla's childhood and youth are reflections of that misery -- and even beyond that Free Day is a terribly sad story -- but with so little self-pity to it it's not simply a bleak, depressing tale. Galla's determination and resilience -- as reflected also in her bicycling these long distances in these terrible conditions (always also with the awareness that she could be run down by the next car ...) -- powerfully drives the book, making for an impressive narrative.
       The conclusion is, arguably, almost too much -- a cruel twist of an unexpected knife -- and even too neat, but it certainly also rounds off the story well, and is fitting enough. Here, perhaps, it (and everything before) emerges as author-crafted fiction -- if not exactly contrived then still (too) perfectly laid out. It doesn't exactly undermine the work as a whole, but reshapes what previously had appeared to be simple, raw (and rawly expressed) experience and memory into something slightly artificial -- a novel, as it happens.
       Regardless, there's no denying Free Day is a powerful, impressive, and well-presented work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 December 2019

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Free Day: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Inès Cagnati lived 1937 to 2007.

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© 2019 the complete review

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