Winner of the Prix Femina, The Boy is a historical novel that follows a nearly feral child from the French countryside as he joins society and plunges into the torrid events of the first half of the 20th century.
Malte’s prose, in translation, is transcendent. With its stunning array of characters and meditations on the meaning of life’s travails, the boy’s story poignantly raises the question of what, exactly, it means to be civilized.
Malte’s satire of bourgeois society and warmongering picks reasonable (if easy) targets, like a callow medical officer who calls war 'the highest degree of civilization.' But leaving Felix speechless only cedes the floor to Malte’s overworked prose and dispiriting portrait of Emma, who’s introduced as an intellectual spitfire but degrades into a purveyor of melodramatic love letters. Pacifism and sexual freedom both deserve better. Another reminder that war is hell, in exceedingly florid prose.
Early on, the prose reads like staccato bullet-points... and as the story goes on, it becomes elegant, passionate, and forceful, mirroring the boy’s intellectual development as he leaves the hamlet and enters the war. Malte’s descriptions of the war are particularly striking ... delivered in massive paragraphs that force the reader to viscerally experience the chaos of the battlefield. Malte’s outwardly simple tale of romance and war ends up being a profound meditation on wisdom.