People Like Them
by Samira Sedira
After killing a mixed-race family of five, Constant Guillot - once a promising athlete but increasingly a haunted, troubled figure in his remote mountain village - sprints to a frozen river, breaks through the thick crust of ice with the butt of his rifle and washes his hands, a rather odd thing to do.
When the prosecutor asks Guillot why he did this he replies - "My blood mixed with their blood. I couldn't handle it."
That's no spoiler, readers find out who the killer is in the first few pages of this short, powerful novel - the first by Algerian born French writer/actress/playwright Samira Sedira to receive an English translation.
Rather than writing a conventional whodunnit, Sedira - who counts Flaubert, Carver and Celine as literary influences - is more interested in exploring issues of class, race and jealousy.
The novel's based on a murder case that gripped France in 2003 - where a man with no criminal record butchered the next door neighbours' family over a small amount of money - but Sedira has chosen to set People like Them in 2015 as France reeled in the wake of the Paris terror attacks and dealt with a growing nationalist movement.
It's a furore our characters observe from a distance - news filters through but Sedira depicts a sleepy (all-white) village little concerned with events in the capital. In Carmac casual racism and colonial attitudes are very much alive.
The novel opens with an extended description of the village that's heavy (perhaps a little too heavy) with foreboding - "There's no cemetery in Carmac. The dead are buried in the neighbouring towns." - before Sedira, via our narrator Guillot's partner Anna, plunges us into a courtroom where we listen to a stark, blow by blow description of the crime by the killer himself.
Sedira then goes back in time to detail the outsider's arrival. She flips the stereotypical script - Bakary is a dynamic, successful black man married to an attractive white woman. The family own expensive cars, run a high-end travel company and begin building an impressive chalet next door to the Guillot family.
It's a level of wealth and sophistication the village has never seen and it begins a simmering resentment with some.
Early in the book there's a scene in the local cafe where Sedira introduces us to two old men, jokers and village stalwarts, but they're also ex-French soldiers who fought in Algeria.
At first they seem perfectly likeable company and then, when the subject of the new arrivals comes up, one utters under his breath, "…we don't see too many brutes like that around here."
Sedira paints with a subtle brush. Outwardly the new couple and their three children are embraced by the village but when a financial transaction goes awry the always delicate Guillot is driven to breaking point.
"I could see clearly enough that something inside you had broken," Anna writes of her partner's long struggle with depression. "Something that you had eventually put back together but whose delicate equilibrium risked giving way at any moment."
Sedira, who worked for three years as a cleaner for wealthy clients when her acting work dried up, is particularly incisive when describing Anna working for Bakary's wife as a cleaner and also on the burden a crime like Guillot's places on the partner.
"The woman who one day becomes the murderer's wife shoulders a responsibility almost more damning than that of the murderer himself, because she wasn't able to detect in time the vile beast slumbering inside her spouse."
- Reviewed by Greg Fleming