When personal scandal forces her to leave Paris, Frances, a young British graduate student, travels to southern France one summer to volunteer on a farm. Almost as soon as she arrives, she is pulled into a toxic relationship with the farm’s enigmatic owner, Paul, a well-traveled older artist.
Frances astutely sketches a man both magnetic and odious, sometimes simultaneously charming and a total drag ... Frances is a rather listless contemporary heroine ... Through Frances’ idolization of Paul, the less starry-eyed reader encounters a deadpan appraisal of how convincingly fetishization can masquerade as virtue ... I experienced a mild current of dread for Frances as she bobbed along, distant and alien to herself, in exile from her life as she silently accompanies Paul on a jaunt across the French countryside ... Lafarge is deft at mapping the arc of Frances’ shifting perception of her object of study, as her fascination with Paul curdles slowly, and then rapture turns to disgust all at once. Racing through the book toward the big reveal, guided by Lafarge’s sustained, brooding tension, the reader starts to suspect Frances has been the one with the power all along.
Lafarge introduces early on in the text the concept of geomagnetic reversal – a sudden switch in the planet’s magnetic field that takes place 'every half million years or so', which Paul’s neighbour predicts will occur imminently. The novel sets up a similar magnetic transferral ... A fissure opens up between the narratorial and authorial perspective, between Frances’s awed perception of her host and the grim reality of his character – his inflated pride, his cruelty, the mysterious void at the centre of his life ... Paul has a neat, intuitive structure. There are three discrete sections, each lasting a week ... Its plot is light and fast-moving: Lafarge introduces into the text a multitude of distinctive characters, locations and events ... The novel gains density, though, through mythical allusion, historical parallels and rich, complex imagery ... In this beautifully constructed novel, it is only a matter of time before the truth comes out, the magnetic poles reversing once more.
The novel is a gripping but painful read ... The story of a bright young woman ensnared by an older man is a familiar one. Poet Daisy Lafarge tells it well, in hypnotic prose, laced with the buzzing of insects, the burning of hot sun, the intensity of the man. It is a sensuous pleasure to read as this gaslit woman first loses, then slowly regains, her voice.