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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Philippe Djian

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To purchase Unforgivable

Title: Unforgivable
Author: Philippe Djian
Genre: Novel
Written: 2009 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 213 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Unforgivable - US
Unforgivable - UK
Unforgivable - Canada
Impardonnables - Canada
Unforgivable - India
Impardonnables - France
Die Leichtfertigen - Deutschland
Imperdonabili - Italia
  • French title: Impardonnables
  • Translated by Euan Cameron
  • Unforgivable was made into a film in 2011, directed by André Téchiné

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Our Assessment:

C : lackadaisical effort

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Figaro . 30/1/2009 Jean-Marc Parisis
Libération . 22/1/2009 Claire Devarrieux
Publishers Weekly . 18/1/2010 .
Télérama . 19/1/2009 Nathalie Crom

  From the Reviews:
  • "Du Djian pur jus, prosaïque, laconique, nuageux, roublard, tout en faux rythmes et trous d'air. Avec cette façon inimitable de ne jamais s'énerver dans le dialogue. A quoi cela servirait-il, puisque la vie a tout l'air d'une punition, d'un crash au ralenti ?" - Jean-Marc Parisis, Le Figaro

  • "Il y a des livres qu’on trouve excellents sans avoir besoin de les terminer. Quoi qu’on pense d’Impardonnables, il est impossible de l’arrêter en cours de route. La douleur de Francis est une tension qui se maintient alors même que l’intrigue bifurque." - Claire Devarrieux, Libération

  • "Billed as a literary thriller, this clever if downbeat novel from French author Djian is likely to appeal more to mainstream readers than genre fans." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Djian, ici au meilleur de son talent, capable de donner corps à ce sexagénaire furieusement égocentrique et infantile, attachant et déraisonnable, et de faire de ce personnage le centre de gravité d'une fiction profondément méditative, dans laquelle l'examen minutieux des relations parents-enfants, le thème du pardon et de la miséricorde, ne sont que la surface apparente d'une ambition esthétique et éthique plus vaste: dire la difficulté du métier de vivre et d'aimer. C'est fait -- et remarquablement fait." - Nathalie Crom, Télérama

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:

       Unforgivable is narrated by a successful writer, Francis. Just about to turn sixty when the novel begins, he hasn't written a book in a decade or so. He has a decent excuse for that: in 1996 his wife and older daughter died in a horrific accident which he (and his younger daughter, Alice) witnessed, and he's obviously still scarred by that.
       He has moved on a bit, but only with middling success. He married -- Judith, the real estate agent whom he hired when he moved to the Basque country after the accident -- but that union is beginning to fray now too. And, as the novel begins, there's another blow to absorb: his daughter Alice has gone missing.
       Alice's husband, Roger, shows up with their twin daughters, but Alice doesn't come with them. Why isn't exactly clear -- though Roger lets it be known:

I couldn't care less whether it's for this reason or that. I've had enough, Francis. She can go to hell.
       Roger and the kids hang about for a while, with Francis getting to play babysitter, which doesn't please him all that much; he loves the girls, of course, but would prefer to go about his own business. Not that he's very busy, given that he's not writing much.
       Alice's disappearance turns out to be a more complicated matter . Aside from the fact that Francis seems to have 'lost' her a long time ago, she now seems to have truly disappeared -- leading him to moan:
Was it possible for a man to lose his two daughters in the space of twelve years ? Could fate dog one like this ?
       Oh, yes.
       It appears that Alice was kidnapped, and then that the police-rescue effort was bungled. Francis was not informed because no one was to know what was being done.
       Wild child Alice grew up to become a movie star -- "'You must have seen her in the last James Bond,' I said to him. 'Or else in Voici.'" -- but hasn't quite abandoned her wild ways. Still, they're an improvement over what she turned into after the death of her mother and sister, a mopey, drugged-up girl who couldn't care about anything. She hooked up with the even more pathetic and drug-addled loser, Roger, -- but, as Francis notes, she did have her wits about her to some extent in settling on him: "God know she went around with street musicians, layabouts, and drug addicts at the time, but she must have had her head screwed onto her shoulders to pick a banker from out of the pack." Presumably what he means is that she settled on someone from a family where she knew he'd always be taken care of -- Roger is a 'banker' only because his family owns a bank, and sounds like for a long time he was just about the last person you'd ever want to entrust with anything. Nevertheless, Roger does seem to have turned his life around and become a responsible citizen (though at the cost of a couple of one of his daughter's fingers ...) -- while Alice hasn't completely left her wild days (and flings with co-stars, including Brad Pitt) behind.
       Alice's disappearance turns out to be more complicated yet, as this family turns out to be even more dysfunctional than originally suggested, and other characters are dragged into the whole mess. Francis hired a detective to look into the case, and the person he hired is Anne-Marguerite Lémo, an old schoolmate he hadn't seen in forty years but who lives nearby. Anne-Marguerite -- A.-M. -- comes with her own baggage, including lesbianism, cancer, and a son fresh out of prison after a six year stint for a hold-up gone bad, Jérémie. Jérémie, of course, comes with even more baggage.
       With his own marriage foundering, Francis eventually enlists Jérémie to tail Judith and see what she's up to. Not a great idea, though at least it seems to give the kid something to do (when the only other things he seems capable of are getting into fights and attempting suicide -- the teens and twenties are terrible times for everyone in this novel, filled solely with despair, drugs, and pointless violence).
       This novel covers years, with Francis eliding over long stretches and almost casually breaking off after some of the most significant events. It's his story, so he can tell it however he wants, but his self-centered lack of vision doesn't make for a very compelling narrative much of the time (despite all the tabloid-worthy sensational goings-on). Alice's betrayal is, admittedly, a real doozy, but Francis can barely deal with anything (and anyone), and certainly not that.
       In a way it's nice that there is still some sense of family here -- everybody keeps showing up with the kids at Francis' doorstep -- but it's unclear why any of them bother with one another. Francis' only redeeming actions are his efforts to help Jérémie -- among other things: he gets him a dog and a job, and he tries to get him to help his fast-dying mother -- but Jérémie is such a messed-up shit that everyone would have been better off if they had just cut their losses early on. Roger and Alice and Judith all have their moments, too, but they've all strayed too far over the deep edge too to be in any way depended on. Ultimately, there's not a sympathetic character in the lot (save perhaps A.-M. -- who suffers most).
       Djian packs way too much into such a short novel, and his almost off-hand and occasionally very lazy presentation doesn't help matters at all. Francis' vantage point is a limited one, yet Djian tries to stretch it very far -- the novel deals not only with the present, but also dredges up a lot of the past. The almost shorthand of his feelings about various characters seems less convincing when he tries to explain himself, as Djian has an astonishingly unsure touch about that.
       Francis-as-writer doesn't help either, especially when he spouts stuff such as:
     Nothing was harder than writing a novel. No other human task demanded so much effort, so much self-denial, such stamina. No painter, no composer was in the same league as a novelist. Everyone knew this only too well.
     I had sometimes gritted my teeth so tightly in the midst of a sentence that the entire room began to sing. Hemingway said the same thing. The grass did not grow green of its own accord. The landscape did not drift by on the other side of the windowpane by magic.
       This is pompous, silly stuff under the best of circumstances, but coming from Francis sounds even more absurd; alas, Djian does not seem to mean to make fun of his protagonist by letting him state such things.
       Djian even blows it when he has the right idea in mind, as when Francis returns to the question of the possibility of a man losing his two daughters in the space of twelve years, as a few years later (and with the blows still coming) Francis admits to himself:
     A man could easily lose both his wives and both his daughters. There was no doubt in my mind about this; it wasn't something I even wanted to discuss. I reckoned it was possible for a bombshell to fall in the exact same place as another, even if the probability was nil
       Which is typical of Francis' 'logic' -- and Djian's writing.
       A couple of the scenes are decently done, but Djian only really hits the mark just right once, when Francis describes what he did when he came across one of the other characters attempting suicide:
My role had been limited to calling the emergency services while the blood continued to flow from his arm. I had also switched off the music. Joy Division or not.
       (For once: pitch-perfectly put; and Djian did know his pop culture -- Joy Division is, of course, the ultimate in suicide-backdrop music -- but his touch is beginning to feel less sure: Alice as international movie star never comes very close to convincing.)
       Oh, yes, there's some sort of dramatic-tragic ending, too, though it's hard to imagine that by that point anyone still cares what happens to any of these characters, the whole novel having long been on the wrong trajectory.
       Unforgivable is very thin, the writing very lackadaisical. The elements are all here -- Djian has some decent ideas (a few too many, as far as the action goes, however), and you sort of understand what he's after -- but it just doesn't work. Not at all. (And the translation probably doesn't help; Djian's tone is a tough one to get, and Cameron does him no favors with the route he's taken.)

- M.A.Orthofer, 10 January 2010

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Unforgivable: Reviews: Unforgivable the film: Philippe Djian: Other books by Philippe Djian under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       Bestselling French author Philippe Djian was born in 1949.

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© 2010-2021 the complete review

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