It’s the sort of chronicle you didn’t realize was missing until you find yourself reading it for the first time, finding out, as this reader did, that in many ways it’s the story of your own wasted youth, discovering that the time period it recounts is not just the intimate stuff of your own memories but actually a perfectly bygone era with its own irreducible look and feel ... Veteran translator William Rodarmor does a good job capturing this tone, deftly transposing the slangy French dialogue into its 1990s English equivalent ... Mathieu creates a memorable adolescent dramatis personae to people this vivid, vacuous little world ... Throughout this coming of age the tension between these two sons of Heillange persists, and its consequences unfold in interesting ways. Their respective senses of belonging to Heillange, and to France, also evolve. In fact, it is this fraught question of belonging, which, if unspoken, lies at the very heart of the novel. Will any of these kids ever get out of Heillange? If so, where would they go? Ultimately, what is so moving about And Their Children After Them is how it manages to express without undue pathos the desperate desire for true belonging that unconsciously animates these adolescents ... a novel that is delightfully detached and disabused, and yet knows when to let down its guard and be moving.
It’s all easier to keep track of than it sounds in summary, maybe because Mathieu is an adept writer, or maybe because it formally resembles a television drama, cutting from one storyline to the next ... Like many a prestige television show, the novel is enjoyable, sometimes addictive, occasionally ridiculous ... Hacine’s trajectory from local hoodlum to worse (spoiler averted) is not imaginative, but perhaps that is the intention, to conjure the few options for first-generation immigrants in France. I should note that by the book’s end, Hacine is given the most surprising and lovely near-redemption ... Like many a prestige television show, the novel is at its best at the outset—idiosyncratic, irresistible, atmospheric ... By its third section, though, the text’s desire to say something important becomes too urgent. The author chooses a device that challenges credulity to make a statement not about his players but the place ... Unlike so many of our journalists, Mathieu does not shy from the difficult stuff ... Mathieu is better at creating people than making political points. The former is much harder, and what we want of our novelists anyway ... As the novel draws down, the writer strains to deliver a moral...A little silly, sure, but sometimes it’s a comfort to let go, to let art transport us.
Mathieu’s lament over the social and psychic wreckage left by deindustrialisation aligns him to other literary witnesses to a forgotten underclass in French culture today, such as Édouard Louis and Didier Eribon. His rapt attention to the humdrum, epoch-defining detail of daily life may bring to mind the icily forensic gaze of Michel Houellebecq. Mathieu, however, has a different perspective — and a much more loveable one ... His qualities lie far from either Louis’s blazing fury, or Houellebecq’s glacial contempt. Although acts of violence punctuate the families’ journey through the decade, And Their Children After Them finds space too for beauty, for tenderness, for hope. It has a strain of blue-collar romanticism, of nostalgia for the dignity of toil ... If these overlapping layers of cause-and-effect recall the naturalism of Émile Zola, then something in the half-lyrical, half-prophetic tone reminded me of DH Lawrence ... Then again, you might think of a Ken Loach movie with a soundtrack by Bruce Springsteen; especially as William Rodarmor’s salty and supple translation lends to Anthony and his pals the smartass, vulnerable voices of American, not British, rust-belt teens ... may sound like a tract. It feels, though, more like an elegiac anthem, one drenched in 'the terrible sweetness of belonging'.
Mathieu doesn’t have a feel for nuance and wisely abstains from getting too far into the heads of his characters ... It is the narrator who takes pains to fill in what the teenagers aren’t fully articulating ... How Mathieu keeps his novel together is itself a marvel ... a novel of minor events and interactions, constructed like a 12-episode HBO drama – and one is quickly engaged by the trenchant phrasing and blunt tone, the surface of scenes, the gestures of characters that become familiar over time. Finally one realizes that the unnamed speaker is the seminal mind here, and that this is a text about observation and attitude. Mathieu pivots nimbly between the narrator’s tart assessments and terse telling of plot. Time and again, the narrator turns from the action, such as it is, to remark on the city environs ... he acerbic attitude of And Their Children After Them is its secret sauce – and as one follows the narrow path of the plot, its bitterly flairing perspective lights the way ... The translation has its clunky moments, and though William Modamor does his best to retain Mathieu’s clipped street-wise voice, the idiomatic phrases often sound inappropriate or too American ... But And Their Children After Them fascinated me – not for its social critique, which sounds more like inspired conversation after a few drinks, but for its density of actuality, the familiarity of its despair. This novel, celebrated for its social sensitivities, works because it points to the mythic core of human behavior – the unchangeable, the returning. The French know, better than anyone, that the coexistence of human beings in relations of equality and freedom is possible.
Between bursts of dramatic scenes that read like Knausgaard on seek mode, Mathieu moves blithely between close third-person narrations of his protagonists...and broad sociological statements ... Mathieu is good at channeling the rage, misery, and hopelessness of Hacine ... There’s little hope in Mathieu’s grim tale of the end of youthful ecstasy, but he locates the bittersweet flavor that comes from accepting where one is from.
Mathieu writes with an adept omniscience, making hairpin turns into various perspectives from paragraph to paragraph ... Alongside the hard facts, a beauty emerges, because love is also a hard fact. Particularly heartfelt are the evenings Anthony spends with his aunts and cousins ... a deft work of nostalgia, well-suited for this summer season. It calls to mind those little-appreciated moments when one might brush shoulders with a stranger. The book’s most significant occurrences take place in public—at a beach, a bar, a Bastille Day celebration, a bistro where the World Cup is playing. People are smoking, music is playing. You excuse yourself to get some air, and never know who you might run into: a face from the past whom you might remember, or who might remember you.
... a masterly, far-reaching exploration of a de-industrialized country which 'treated its families like a minor footnote to society' ... Mathieu’s writing is deeply concerned with physical appearance ... the women in particular bear the brunt of the human gaze ... Mathieu’s handling of quotidian and often gritty subjects is disconcertingly lyrical, and it is rendered well by William Rodarmor’s translation ... Mathieu shares his sustained social interest with Émile Zola, whose Rougon-Macquart cycle charted the lives of one family over twenty novels. Equally, his novel echoes Balzac in depicting the hierarchies of a social microcosm ... This is the world of the gilets jaunes: a hinterland in which, as Mathieu himself puts it, tomorrow is not necessarily good news.
This is a deeply felt novel, filled with characters that demand the empathy of the reader. It’s not always easy; they can be selfish and too quick to anger. Their actions cause trouble for everyone around them, while they often slip away, waiting for the mess they’ve created to die down. But Mathieu understands this environment and is sympathetic to their struggles. There are no villains in the book but there is a deep sense of humanity in all its flaws ... It’s an exceptional portrait of youth, ennui and class divide.
... deceptively simple ... Throughout this page-turner of a novel, there are elements of Michel Houellebecq’s suffocating atmospheres of Occidental decadence, rife with soul-crushingly pointless labor and leisure pursuits and the impossibility of meaningful interpersonal bonds. There is also a whiff of Camus’s The Stranger, as the centuries-long confrontation between the white Frenchman and the Arab, the colonizer and the colonized, the native and the interloper ... As suffused with local color as this book is, parallels with left-behind swaths of America stand out on every page ... It is easy to see why this novel, which arrives just on time and contains the secret history of the current political upheaval, would find such critical acclaim. But it is a flawed artwork all the same — a somewhat ineptly translated narrative that incongruously balances raw pornographic sex scenes with the pacing, vocabulary and plot structure of saccharine Y.A. fiction. Its descriptive language can be comically bad, with phrases any creative writing instructor would banish from her class ... Mathieu’s melodramatic tale is mimetic almost to a fault of the smallness of the social conditions it seeks to convey. And yet, I couldn’t put the book down. I didn’t want it to end. What, exactly, is fiction for? I found myself wrestling with this question throughout. Certainly there is the Wildean argument of art for art’s sake, in light of which this work can be wanting, an example of the contemporary emphasis on content at the expense of craft. But there is also that other, mysterious appeal in which a story resonates in ways that even the most devastating sociology and journalism cannot. And that is what will keep me thinking of these unremarkable characters in this made-up town for a very long time.
... stunning, bittersweet ... Anthony’s solitary yearning emerges in staccato lines, and his restlessness is reflected in Mathieu’s shaggy, aimless story ... Anthony’s and his friends’ repeated adolescent male behavior is depicted in beautifully observed detail, while Mathieu’s unblinking descriptions of Anthony’s parents ... Mathieu’s subtle craft will enrapture readers and appeal to fans of Édouard Louis.
Mathieu captures the vulnerability and awkwardness of adolescence with painful acuity as the teenagers struggle to find their ways in the world. But his interest extends further, to their families and the place itself; characters and setting are inextricable, as the book's best writing reveals ... Mathieu's sympathy for his characters is cleareyed and generous, and the final section—showing the entire valley caught up in World Cup soccer fever as the French team competes for a place in the finals—is surprisingly moving ... A gritty, expansive coming-of-age novel filled with sex and violence that manages to be tender, even wryly hopeful.