Loyalties by Delphine de Vigan, translated from the French by George Miller
Published by Bloomsbury, 2020 (first published in 2018)
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
This is one of those books that has been on my radar for a while, despite not hearing many people talk about it. Having finally picked it up, I’m delighted to say it exceeded my every expectation. We follow four perspectives: Théo, an adolescent boy from a broken family who finds himself increasingly reliant on the escapism offered by alcohol; Mathis, his friend, who is growing ever more concerned about Théo’s behaviour; Hélène, their teacher, who is convinced Théo is being abused at home; and Cécile, Mathis’s mother, who has recently discovered a distressing secret about her husband.
As the title suggests, the book is primarily a look at the concept of loyalty in its various forms. I want to avoid specifics to let you experience the unfolding of the plot for yourself, but each of the four characters is attempting to keep a secret to protect someone else. Though they all have valid reasons for wishing to remain loyal, we see the negative implications their well-meaning lies have on all parties involved. As such, de Vigan is able to explore the idea that sometimes, the best thing you can do for someone you care about is in fact to breach their trust and reach out for help – before it’s too late.
The book isn’t a thriller in the traditional sense, but the undercurrent of tension and claustrophobia that builds throughout had me enthralled. The weaving together of the four narrative threads is handled with such skill, and though there is a palpable sense of inevitable tragedy looming over the whole thing, it’s no less impactful and emotionally devastating when everything starts to come to a head. I will say, the ending is left deliberately open in certain respects (though there is simultaneously a subtle victory that I think is so beautifully handled). This will undoubtedly frustrate some readers, but for me, within the context of the climax’s breathless execution and the book’s wider themes, it really worked. Anything too neat would have felt like a contradiction, and would have been to the detriment of the book’s lasting impact.
There was some very clever, nuanced commentary on sexism throughout that I loved. There are direct instances of this (like Cécile being belittled for being a housewife), and understated examples, like the fact that our four narrators are all women and children, lying (and suffering) to protect a man in their life. With this, I thought de Vigan offered a subtle yet incisive critique of our patriarchal society, highlighting the ways we have all been conditioned to uphold the position and reputation of men ahead of securing our own physical and mental wellbeing.
The book also asks us to consider what constitutes abuse. Hélène, having been beaten by her father as a child, wrongly assumes that Théo is going through the same ordeal, and it’s this that pushes her to increasingly test the boundaries of professional intervention. Though we know she’s technically mistaken, it’s arguable that the neglect and mental strain Théo is suffering as a result of his parents’ behaviour is proving just as harmful as if he was being abused.
It’s interesting to note that the two women’s perspectives are written in first-person, while the adolescent boys’ sections are written in third-person. At surface level, this helps to further differentiate the four POVs, but I think it also hinted at something greater. As adults, Hélène and Cécile both have command over their own voice and fate, while as children, Théo and Mathis lack the same agency. Without ever being heavy-handed, I think de Vigan was able to say a lot about the need for adults to recognise when children are struggling, and to interject accordingly.
I could keep rambling about the various ways this slim gem of a novel worked for me, but suffice to say I think it was expertly crafted. It’s the kind of book that functions at face value as a gripping read with characters you feel truly invested in, and the kind of book which only improves the more time you take to analyse its vast thematic depth and the unassuming skill of its construction. I can’t wait to read more from this author.
You can pick up a copy of Loyalties from Book Depository by clicking here.