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'.