If I start by calling Laurent Mauvignier’s The Birthday Party a psychological thriller, understand that this means what you probably think it means, but also something else. It means a nail-biter plot, but also a focus on characters’ interior worlds so detailed that at times I forgot there was a plot at all ... It is precisely because genres like westerns, mysteries or thrillers traditionally rely on high drama and plot twists that filling them up with small things...can be so evocative and strange ... Not an ironic thriller, but one that truly thrills ... Mauvignier writes wonderfully winding sentences — meticulously translated by Daniel Levin Becker — that zoom in on his characters’ thoughts and feelings in painstaking detail ... The novel maintains its depth, its scrutinizing slowness: a real-time study in crippling self-consciousness, the fragility of normalcy and the reality of violence.
A deft English translation ... Mauvignier steadily unravels the shared illusions that prop up these domestic patterns, so familiar and drained of heat ... Mauvignier’s style is particularly well-suited to depicting this frame of mind, plumbing the subterranean operations of paranoia and denial. He writes in billowing, propulsive sentences, sometimes multiple pages long ... The grim achievement of Mauvignier’s seething, recursive, semi-improvisational style lies in how he manages to portray a muddled mind...with precise lucidity ... This is not — or not merely — a domestic drama, or a portrait of masculine anger and perplexity. It is, above all, a thriller ... A chilling, masterful work. It dwells in that dim, haunted space between violence and mundanity, repression and revelation — that rare thing, a genre-bending novel that sacrifices neither its literary merits nor its pulpy thrills.
The scenes, captured in a fine, controlled translation by Daniel Levin Becker, are taut and propulsive, though not without plot holes ... Mr. Mauvignier follows in a prestigious French tradition of stylized improvisations on popular genre forms and The Birthday Party is not a book to pick up if you want a perfectly executed thriller ... It is instead a book about character ... Mr. Mauvignier peels back those layers of reality in order to better grasp the people they finally form, a composite far more profound than the sum of its parts.
By the time the plot kicks in, we’ve long tuned in to the novel’s demanding style – snaking paragraphs, light on full stops, flit between each character’s experience ... Mauvignier sits the reader up in the gods, able to oversee the bigger picture the way no one involved in the story can themselves, burrowing into each of their brains. It’s a mode of storytelling most often associated with sympathy, but its main effect here is to generate a crackle – I almost typed cackle – of dramatic irony ... Mauvignier’s ability to keep the shocks coming...are among the qualities that make this riveting novel so nastily effective ... This macabre twist on the marriage-portrait novel ultimately invites prudence and humility on the thorny question of how much we can ever know about those closest to us. Hardly a new insight, for sure, but rarely can it have been demonstrated quite so explosively.
Imagine a Stephen King thriller hijacked by Proust. Clammy-handed suspense, nerve-shredding tension, but related in serpentine, elegant prose, each climax held suspended – deferred gratification ... The Birthday Party explores memory, revenge and love tested to the limit. Mauvignier, a leading French writer and multiple prize-winner, is well served by Daniel Levin Becker’s graceful translation which perfectly captures the mesmerising rhythms and menace of this gripping psychological literary thriller.
It would be useless to pretend that The Birthday Party feels anything like your standard airport thriller. It is, as I mentioned, set almost entirely across a single day; what I omitted was that it’s 500 pages long. That’s about 20 pages per hour. The sentences are long, very long sometimes, light on punctuation and circle round their subjects in snaking coils ... Does kind of work as a thriller. The slow-motion sentences become piled up with suspense like snow-laden branches. You have to wait and wait and wait for the violence that is so clearly just a few hours — or a few hundred pages — from erupting ... This is classy writing and worth, I think, braving the 500 pages. It could be worse, after all — it could be 800.
Mauvignier articulately unpicks the thoughts of emotionally inarticulate characters ... Daniel Levin Becker’s translation renders Mauvignier’s prose as fluid, often lovely ... While the narrative drifts skilfully between perspectives, it never truly inhabits them. Mauvignier marshals them, phrasing them in his own exquisite language ... Mauvignier’s erudite thriller proves as interested in the grander deceptions of storyline as it is the ways we deceive ourselves.
Mauvignier weaves lines of typical tension among family members and neighbors but makes it clear that some larger problem is looming ... The amount of detail and digression that Mauvignier explores in his slow, finely drawn (and smoothly translated) dissection of these lives is remarkable and goes far to sustaining interest amid minimal action. Readers whose tastes run to the pacey thrillers of James Patterson may find their patience frayed by the glacial progress of this quasi-Proustian noir. But if the beer god had meant everyone to drink Miller Light, he wouldn’t have given the Belgian Trappists all those rich recipes ... A compelling blend of mystery, horror, and suspense.
Mesmerizing ... The omniscient narration moves elegantly from exterior descriptions to the recesses of the characters’ thoughts, and Becker’s translation lends menace and grace ... This is pleasurably cinematic even as it penetrates deep psychological mysteries. Readers will be riveted.