... articulating tenderness and regret alongside shame and rage ... The frequent shifts from 'you' to 'she' aren’t always easy for a reader to follow, but they convey a woman in motion, alive, as if tracked by a restless lens. Tash Aw’s sensitive translation captures the vividness of Louis’s voice: light, yet recursive in a way that propels us forwards, even as it describes suffocating repetition ... Movingly, the book demonstrates the pain that moving from one social class to another entails ... It is difficult to write candidly about a living family member with whom one is on good terms. At times I missed the unchecked anger of The End of Eddy (2017). In its place a tender recognition of the loneliness of class transition emerges, the cost of having given up what is known for what is possible. As a remedy, Louis risks sentimentality in admitting his desire to build for his mother a home in words. Almost like a character in a fairy tale, Monique eventually finds her way to Paris, and even smokes a cigarette with Catherine Deneuve ... At times the text veers into manifesto ... But perhaps Louis is wrong to suggest that literature cannot be political in an indirect way. Stories do inspire shifts in political consciousness, hitting us somewhere deeper than the intellect. To say that a woman has been destroyed by inequality gives us a fact; to demonstrate it is powerful. The richest moments of the book show us personal agency reacting with and against systemic forces, as when mother and son, in a daze of futile hope, send cheques in answer to a marketing letter offering a chance to win €100,000. Lurking under the book’s fairy-tale surface is a nuanced account of desire and belonging, a careful analysis of the tribalism that can keep us tethered to what wears us down, especially when that tribalism is a response to conditions that make class mobility impossible for so many ... treads familiar ground ... Édouard Louis’s excavation of the violence of class, gender and sexual inequality is worth repeating, and it may be a life’s work.
He uses his personal experience to demonstrate the ways women suffer from subordination and masculine domination; and political attacks on his family to show the ways legislation can further denigrate the poor. In essence, Louis’s intimate narrative creates a pathway to understanding the complex, symbiotic nature between systems of power ... There are some sections of this introspective account, however, that could have benefitted from more flesh. While what he does for his mother—encouraging her to leave his father, taking her to fancy French restaurants, and arranging an encounter with a celebrity she admired—is shown, his feelings for her are sparse and somewhat simplistic ... Even though as a fan and ravenous reader of his work I desired a bit more, the slightness of Louis’s book can be seen as radical in itself. Towing the powerhouse that is male privilege, he makes himself smaller than those around him on the shelf and in doing so, we have to work to find him there. Although one could argue that the story of a woman should be much larger than those of her male counterpart, I appreciate and acknowledge the act of solidarity. It remains clear, by this work and others, that Louis is in service to those overlooked by the privileged and an excellent role model for how men can become better allies to women ... In the end, we learn a crucial lesson, one that many might already suspect or know, the message beating from the heart of this book, that male supremacy, ultimately, serves no one.
The material remains painful, yet Louis’s mellowing tone can be seen in how much more gently he portrays the grim details of Monique’s occupation than he did in The End of Eddy, a luridly styled book undeniably out to shock. The heartbreaking details tend to be quieter, often related to a kind of survivor’s guilt as Louis looks back to his mother’s ill-starred attempts to conjure an escape during his childhood ... Remarkably, Louis avoids patronising his mother in all this ... You suspect this uniquely troubling writer is far from done yet.
... translated into English with unobtrusive flair ... Readers of Louis, who is 29 — he has published five best-selling novels in France, this his fourth — know his mix of tenderness and rage, sentiment and intellection, and above all formal ingenuity: Each of his books is different from the last in how it makes its narrative way ... exhibit[s] a less appealing feature of Louis’s novelistic practice, one that has been present all along, a kind of 40-watt intellectual bombast ... The passive voice, Louis’s abstract 'I’ve been told,' tells us very little: Anyone can tell anyone anything, but that doesn’t make it meaningful. Louis is setting up straw men to mow down, with those sharpened sentences — a metaphor that comes off as self-parody, not provocation. In so short a book, the frequency of the interjections and their specious banality stomps on the tenderness that Louis is documenting. It is as if the novel has been made to digest its own readers’ guide...it is a mode that has come to feel more like a tic ... How does one evolve, as a man, as a writer, when the struggle has become not with one’s past but with one’s present? One changes everything. One grows up.
The portrait we get of Monique’s life is constructed out of vignettes gleaned from scrapbooks and interviews, rendered in the signature collage style that Louis deftly uses to connect his mother’s experience to a broader narrative of working-class struggle ... does have moments of joy, though they are usually routes to the author’s more mournful realizations ... What makes Louis’s writing, here and elsewhere, feel so fresh to these American eyes is its focus on class, a social reality that is often obscured by other identity markers — especially race, gender, and sexuality — that take center stage in our national culture ... by turning repeatedly to the question of class, Louis at once provides refreshing texture to the gay coming-of-age experience while also decentering sexuality as the sole challenge that young Eddy faces ... In Louis’s writing, class is stubborn, an intractable condition that at once puts tremendous pressure on the desire for sociopolitical change and calls into question the very possibility of transformation within the existing liberal regime. It is perhaps because of Louis’s misgivings about the possibility of transformation that he has returned now three times to the scene of his childhood. For his audiences, these tales are highly salable and accrete to their author all kinds of cultural and (one imagines) economic capital. On the strength of this thrice-told story and audiences’ adoration for victim-to-victor narratives, Louis has been able to make a living as a writer whose works have not only sold well, but also have been adapted into plays performed from New York to Berlin. Yet, one gets the clear sense that for Louis, the return to the scene of a troubled childhood is motivated not by opportunism, but by the unresolved nature of his transformation story, a condition that asks big questions for the writer and, he appears to hope, for his reader ... What Louis sketches here in such beautifully direct language is an indictment of the very narratives of transformation that make palatable the (un)changing same of socioeconomic life in contemporary liberal democracies ... If readers hear him, they will hear not only the dramatic story of one French family, but also the larger story of the more urgent changes that are needed so that his tales of transformation are not the unique exception, but rather the experience of so many millions more whose voices have yet to reach our ears.
Crisply translated ... The prose is restrained, only occasionally interrupted by lines of stabbing lyricism ... [Louis] seeks to both retroactively restore agency to his mother, offering his book as a kind of psychic bomb shelter 'in which she might take refuge.'
The writing is intensely lyrical but the subject rubs up against the political ... Sad but ultimately loving, this book is an apology directed to the mother he neither understood nor supported when he was young ... Moving and beautiful. The book falls between genres, so it may be slow to be picked up but is worth highlighting.
The reasons he has charmed readers are obvious. Louis writes simply and clearly. He’s disarmingly frank and earnest in a way that makes it difficult to stop looking — like a child who won’t break eye contact ... Louis’ most hopeful book to date ... As in previous books, Louis commingles the personal and the political. He tackles head on the homophobia, racism, chauvinism and class hatred rampant back home. But again, he’s quick to assert that responsibility lies not with the individual but with systems of self-reproducing masculine and class violence.
Even though Louis’s prose is assuredly polished, it often feels as if he is deliberately exposing his process—his arguments are not always consistent, but it is through the relentless investigative writing that he develops insight and nuance, and revises his ideas. Louis’s style is detached, slippery, decidedly unsentimental, but nonetheless moving. He repeats phrases word for word, like a leitmotif, sometimes giving them a whole page spread to themselves. The use of white space and blank pages is telling; in music, the rests are just as important as the notes ... While translator Tash Aw consistently chooses language that feels honest rather than lyrical, he manages to retain (or perhaps inject) a wonderful rhythm throughout. Aw also invites the reader to sit in the tension between Louis’s philosophical explorations and his simpler, more confessional language, and each feels true to the story ... Is this a tad patronizing? Yes. But A Woman’s Battles and Transformations is not really her story. Like the images in Mothers Before, it is an unequal conversation with the past, a child’s vision of a parent, their relationship, and the ways in which both of those subjects transformed—it is Louis’s memoir after all, beautiful and moving for all its flaws. Louis’s trademark cool ambivalence is precisely what makes his work so evocative—but in this little volume, he reveals a hint of tenderness and curiosity for his 'mother before,' and for who she might become.
... slim, tender ... an empathetic portrait ... He depicts her transformation into a happy, attractive woman, reveling in pleasure and hard-won freedom, as a gift to them both ... A sensitive meditation on a woman’s difficult life.
Of the more dramatic developments brought about by Louis’s constant unearthing of new layers to his life, or to the narrative of that life—no longer as forthright as it once was—has been his retreat from the straightforwardly political. Despite the renewed assertion, in A Woman, that his writing is a 'political manifesto,' where each sentence is sharpened like 'the blade of a knife,' we are far from the direct accusations of Who Killed My Father...One is hard-pressed to find a consistent critique behind it; if this was a manifesto, you would be forgiven for wondering whether it called for the government’s overthrow or a Great National Debate ... while Louis certainly still speaks to the moment, he might not like what he is saying.
The key to Louis’s literary appeal is that he engages with complex themes while keeping things relatively simple. His elegant concision – his books are less than 200 pages long – ensures that candour never lapses into self-indulgence. On the down side, he is prone to certain faddish turns of phrase, such as the lazy (and slightly pretentious) characterisation of oppressive social mores as ‘violence’, and using ‘bodies’ as a synonym for ‘people’...That said, his wry description of his younger brother’s gaming addiction as ‘a radically contemporary kind of life’ is pleasingly withering ... For all the tenderness in these pages, there’s also a sense of smug triumphalism: a hard-edged, unforgiving energy, indicative of lingering psychic wounds.
Louis returns to much of the same subject matter as in his debut but adopts a more sociological approach, taking the liberty to draw conclusions on behalf of the reader. The reader’s reception of these books will depend largely on whether they find Louis’s diagnoses persuasive, and whether they trust him more as a social critic or as a novelist ... There is a real pleasure, a charm, to reading Louis’s writing — his sentences and scenes — that is entirely apart from his political convictions. And there is a reason that more people read novels and memoirs than works of sociology and politics. The danger of privileging political considerations over aesthetic considerations is that the text may lose its charm and alienate readers who do not already share the author’s politics; it may give readers the impression that they are being lectured, or worse, scolded ... The risk is that, if critics no longer accuse Louis of being a class traitor — of talking down to those who raised him — then they might accuse him of being an ideologue — of talking down to his readers, including members of all social classes. This would be a shame, as Louis is by now one of the most prominent chroniclers of working-class lives in contemporary literature ... Nevertheless, it has to be admitted that his sociological and political diagnoses can sometimes be heavy-handed, as when he condemns literature altogether — the thing which may give him the best chance of creating future political subjects.
The book is short on purpose, Louis explained recently, to increase its impact and make it 'inescapable'. And indeed it does not take long to finish, but perhaps at the expense of substance. One would want to know more about his mother, Monique Bellegueule, but even Louis concedes that he does not have much to work with ... Even though we see his mother in a new light the book includes scenes that readers might find repetitive — perhaps intentionally so ... Louis writes that repetition is a way to draw society’s attention. But one is left wondering how many more times Louis will dissect these stories from various angles — perhaps when he chooses to focus on another family member, such as his wife-beating, alcoholic brother? ... His style is deliberately simple and matter-of-fact, akin to the “flat” writing of auto-fiction supremo Annie Ernaux, who has inspired a generation of French writers and likes to use photographs to examine her poor upbringing in Normandy in the 1940s and 1950s. But while Ernaux complements her objective, almost sociological writing with material from her diary and letters to produce deeply reported portraits of her family, Louis is more focused on the political message he wants to deliver: women are victims of the patriarchy in the working class — where a husband on benefits objects to his wife working because she earns €300 more than him every month. Here, a gender war is still raging, ignored, that is more brutal and with greater consequences than in the higher spheres of society. That is Louis’s job to remind us.
... preserves both the original’s leaden, portentous title and, as an added bonus for the $20 asking price, every other word in this limp and boring bit of memoir is likewise leaden and portentous. And once again, the fault cannot be laid at the feet of the translator; Tash Aw has done everything human ingenuity can do to flush some life into these dead-lily pages. No, it’s the author’s original French that rolls half-upright on its afternoon couch, looks around, and blandly waits to be applauded for at least seeming to be semi-conscious ... If you’ve ever endured the tedium of being slowly, methodically toured through the minutiae of somebody else’s family photo album, you’ll have some sense of what it’s like to read A Woman’s Battles and Transformations (horrifyingly, the book even includes blurry black-and-white family photos). The element Louis adds to that mundane experience is a kind of grim Gallic swampishness, the implication – entirely incorrect – that a universe of profundity can be squeezed out of any old madeleine ... The consistent attempt here is to inhabit the interior experiences of our author’s mother, but Louis, bless his truant heart, doesn’t try very hard ... likewise familiar is the lazy, shorthand-jotted prose ... In the end, for all its surface-level attention to a downtrodden woman married to a brutish man, A Woman’s Battles and Transformations will prompt readers to ask the same question they’ve asked after each of this author’s books: will Édouard Louis ever write a book that isn’t about the sad fact that some people teased him when he was fifteen? Surely the French have a phrase for 'Don’t hold your breath'?
In this penetrating work, French novelist Louis turns a sharp yet forgiving gaze on the struggles of his mother, and the complicated bond he shared with her ... Slipping seamlessly between lyrical and academic modes of storytelling, he offers more of an impressionistic study than a biography of his mother, sketching the story of her life around the dreams she was forced to give up ... Woven throughout the narrative of unrelenting misfortune are moments of liberation—culminating in his mother’s decision to leave the author’s father—alongside Louis’s own affecting account of grappling with his queerness ... As he recounts the 'fragments of tenderness' that eventually led them to reconcile, Louis delivers an incisive portrait of the ways oppression and social forces brought chaos to their lives, and how they found freedom through compassion. This slim account has serious substance.