TRYSTING, by the French writer Emmanuelle Pagano, is an extraordinary book. Frank, poetic, and rendered beautifully into English from the original French by its joint translators, Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis, it is the stitched together tapestry of over three hundred teasing glimpses of love in its many forms: from the first blush of youthful romance through to the enduring affection of the old; the angst and fire of a brand new romance to the death throes of the stale relationship; from unwarranted loyalty to brutal betrayal, and from chaste admiration through to the borderline deviant. There are cruel secrets, stolen letters, extravagant acts of devotion. Sometimes the gestures are unbearably poignant: a man packing a suitcase for his wife’s withdrawal from the relationship (because that’s what he’s always done); a whole wall stuffed full of rolled up wishes (that she’d come back), a woman who looks out for and celebrates the signs of ageing on her partner as they grow old together: ‘Time is pollinating his skin with flowers, with speckles, with stars’. While the characters remain anonymous, the moments described are so intensely personal that sometimes the book induces the sensation of eavesdropping. If you’re not a Roman Catholic male who’s taken the cloth, this is the closest you’re going to get to the confessions of the world on the subject of love.
Emmanuelle Pagano lives in the Ardèche region in southern France and has published many works of fiction in her native language, including Les Adolescents troglogytes (not, as my primitive French initially suggested, about a group of teenage cave people, but a moving story about a girl born in a boy’s body who returns to confront her roots after making the change) which won the EU Prize for Literature.
Trysting, as the book’s title, is itself a poetic choice. The word refers (usually) to the practice of keeping a private, romantic rendezvous, giving you ‘trysting trees’, those established over generations for their choice as the traditional meeting place for lovers. I love reviewing books for the tangents you end up on: in one version of their story, Maid Marion and Robin Hood were buried together under their trysting tree in the forests of South Yorkshire. In Trysting, Pagano writes almost as a nature writer would, forcing us to slow down to the pace of the moment, and walk with her in observation of the acute experience of love – the physicality of a lover’s touch, the near-tangible agony of a relationship’s death knell.
If there is a frustration with Trysting and its many windows, it would only be that they don’t open far enough. Sometimes a tiny story is so intriguing, so touching, so beautiful, that it is tantalising to be offered such a brief glimpse. But this is more than made up for in the beauty of the prose and the diversity of these deeply personal portraits of the actions, feelings, and connections that we call love.
Trysting is published by And Other Stories for £8.99 (print) or £5 (ebook). And Other Stories provided me with a review copy, in return for an unbiased review.
“Grains of sand, bridges, shampoo, a bike, board games, yoga, sellotape, birds, balloons, tattoos, wandering hands, tweezers, maths, fish, letterboxes, puppets, a vacuum cleaner, a ball of string – and love.
In this fiction of yous and mes, of hims and hers, Pagano choreographs the objects, gestures, places, and persons through which love is made real.”