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New Releases: Embassytown by China Miéville

Underground Reading: Sunday by Georges Simenon

SundayThere's a brilliant pull-quote on the back cover of our copy of Sunday.  "Simenon," Daniel George of the Daily Telegraph promises us, "is now at the height of his power as a disturber of other people's peace of mind."  Although best known today for his crime novels (Lock 14 is a personal favorite), Simenon also wrote a number of psychological thrillers, of which Sunday is a superior example.

Émile is the owner and chef of a little inn off the French Riviera.  He sort of fell into his life there, starting out as a cook at his father's behest.  In short order he marries the owner's daughter Berthe and takes over management of the place.  But Émile's unhappy and bored, and begins to resent his wife.  He longs for freedom and inevitably begins to imagine life without Berthe.

Simenon's style, for those unfamiliar with the author, is spare and evocative.  Despite not being written in the first person, there's a first-person-esque claustrophobic breathlessness to Sunday's narration, which is given entirely from Émile's point of view.  Simenon weaves together the past and the present with a sure hand, moving back and forth through the plot's timeline so that the novel ends only a few hours after it begins, despite spanning years. Within a few paragraphs of the book's beginning, we know that Émile doesn't love his wife, that he's attracted to a servant girl who lives in the attic... and that he has something planned.  Even the most casual crime fiction reader should have a pretty good idea what Émile's got up his sleeve. But Simenon structures the novel in such a way that our supposition goes unconfirmed until Émile himself evolves the idea.  We're trapped in Émile's head, for better or for worse, and we have to ride it out with him.

Émile's no treat, don't get me wrong - he's a coward and a cheat.  But Simenon never makes the character anything less than compelling, even as he becomes increasingly loathsome.  I don't love the predictable mid-century obessions with masculinity and the fear of strong women that Sunday presents, but I find I can forgive the book its sins because Simenon's writing is so seductive. 

I'd also like to highlight the Penguin edition's gorgeous cover-art (pictured above), which is the primary reason I picked up this particular copy of Sunday.  Although the cover screams 1962, its spare and even dated style - like the novel itself - belies masterful composition.

And if the descriptions of the little inn La Bastide near the Midi don't make you long for hot summer days in the south of France... well, I'm sorry to be the one to tell you this, but you're broken.