CHARLIE CONNELLY on a new book which offers a many-layered commentary on modern France and explores the malevolence that can lurk deep within communities
Sometimes it’s the tiny details that really get to you. A passing mention, an aside, something that should seem practically irrelevant but, wham, hits you right in the heart. In Samira Sedira’s People Like Them, it was the chocolate milk that did it for me.
Writing about horrific acts in fiction is more difficult than you might imagine. Remain dispassionate and you risk underplaying the horror while overdoing the gore smacks of gratuitousness. Glossing over detail can lessen the impact; too much description and you’re flirting with voyeurism. Also, there are only so many adjectives: it’s easy for the reader to become so inured to ‘tragic’ and ‘brutal’ events the eye barely registers the words.
People Like Them is the opposite of a whodunnit. We know who did it from the start: Constant Guillot murdered Bakary and Sylvia Langlois and their three children at their home in the French mountain village of Carmac.
At his trial, Constant gives his recollection of how he killed the children with a baseball bat while they were alone in the house, then waited for the parents to return and shot them dead. Of the first killing he says of coming up behind the boy raising the bat, “the kid was having a snack at the big table, chocolate milk in a white bowl”. Then he describes the murder in a clinically detached manner before going on to detail the others.
The chocolate milk detail penetrated every one of my defences, from the knowledge it was only a story to what I liked to think was the hardbitten cynicism of the reviewer. But no. The innocence of the scenario, a child enjoying their favourite thing, the horrendous permanent shattering of that innocence with a single blow, well, it stayed with me for the rest of the book and beyond. Because, especially in the hands of a skilled storyteller, it’s the tiny details that really get to you.
People Like Them is Samira Sedira’s fourth novel but the first to be translated into English. On this evidence the other three should not be far behind, especially if they too are translated by Lara Vergnaud who does a fantastic job here.
Born in Algeria, Sedira moved to France at a young age when her father secured a job as a welder at a boatyard on the Cote d’Azur. After many years as a professional actress, the limited stage opportunities available to an older woman saw her leave the industry and become a cleaner before her first novel was published in 2013. Her life experience has fostered in Sedira a finely-tuned ear for France’s racial and class divides, from overt bigotry to unthinking, subconscious prejudice, a range of experience that makes People Like Them a many-layered commentary on modern France.
The fictional village of Carmac is an archetypally sleepy one. Bisected by Cloudy River and connected by Two Donkeys Bridge it’s absolutely sweltering in the summer and freezing cold in the winter, where the snow brings a silence so heavy that “a pine cone tumbling onto dry needles” counts as a distracting noise.
In the manner of many modern villages across Europe it’s become a commuter satellite, emptying during the day of everyone except the old and the very young (children are bussed to another town to go to school).
Life in Carmac passes slowly and uneventfully, its routines following the seasons, until in the summer of 2015, a period between the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan terrorist attacks, a new family arrives to build a luxurious home on the edge of the village. They introduce themselves to the villagers at a wedding celebration which is where the locals discover that Bakary is black and his wife Sylvia white.
On the face of it race is not an issue. Bakary and Sylvia are warm and charming and the family soon becomes popular, hosting parties and participating enthusiastically in village life. They own a successful bespoke travel agency and while obviously wealthy are sensitive about flaunting it.
Constant and Bakary soon become friends, yet within a few months Constant – normal, inoffensive Constant – has gone into the Langlois home and murdered the entire family.
People Like Them is narrated by Constant’s wife Anna, the book flitting between her attending Constant’s trial and recalling the events that led to it. The Guillots are sensitively drawn and while we are drip fed more information about the Langlois’ as the book progresses they retain much of their enigma. When Anna notes how easily Bakary can relate to everyone in the village, she adds, “you couldn’t decide if that was a positive character trait or a negative one”.
You might think that a man who at the very start of a book can bludgeon three children to death then calmly wait for their parents to come home before shooting them dead would be a tough ask to make likeable. And you’d be right. He isn’t. But where Sedira succeeds is in giving Constant context, helped by the fact we’re seeing him through his wife’s eyes.
Her voice is as detached and bewildered as you’d expect from a woman in her position, but we learn how Constant was once a very promising sportsman until a terrible training injury in his teens not only ended his career but left him with a permanent limp.
He becomes depressed, struggling to come to terms with a life of frustration when one of fame and riches had once beckoned. Village life makes him insular, the parental pressure he was under as an athlete bubbles to the surface: we’re told of any number of disappointments and humiliations, real and perceived, that make him quick to envy others’ material success and turn his life into a consistent downward spiral.
Sedira dangles a number of potential triggers in front of us that might have contributed to why Constant does what he does, which is partly what makes this such a skilful, absorbing and deeply disturbing novel.
Bakary, it turns out, isn’t the unreconstructed charmer, the child from a poor family in Gabon adopted by a Parisian couple who made good, that he’s made out to be.
When Sylvia employs Anna as a housekeeper, the class distinctions to which the Langlois’ are apparently blind bubble to the surface. All of which combine to make People Like Them if not a whodunnit, then a brilliant whydunnit. Even the title represents the clever nuances of the plot: the simple act of putting the stress on the three different words triggers differing implications.
Yet for all the contexts, themes and motivations that weave in and out of each other throughout the book it’s the one that appears most fleetingly that is the most significant.
Sedira based the novel on a real-life murder that took place nearly 20 years ago in a mountain village between Geneva and Mont Blanc when in a famous case in France a man killed his neighbours, a mixed-race couple and their three children, in their home, took the bodies to a nearby forest and burned them.
Every detail was picked over by the press. There was a dispute over property, the previously unassuming killer had become consumed with envy of the lifestyle enjoyed by the victims. He became obsessively resentful of their expensive cars, even the price of their sofas. He had a phobia of blood so severe he couldn’t attend the births of his own children yet cleaned the crime scene meticulously.
He left the victims’ family car at Geneva airport to give the impression they had gone abroad. He’d taken strange trophies from the house: a child’s stereo system, a mobile phone, some DVDs, a bottle of perfume.
Yet for all the speculation and forensic media examination of every aspect of the case one thing was strangely overlooked: how in conversation during the months leading up to the crime the killer had persistently referred to the father of the family not by his name, but by the N-word.
“It was a news story I’d been mulling over for a long time,” Sedira said on the People Like Them’s French publication. “It brought together so many aspects that I recognised, the class struggle, latent racism and the appearance of the foreigner as a threat. Through this story, I am also telling my own.”
The racism in the book is subtly handled. It’s not the overt kind of racism that boos footballers taking the knee or calls for refugees to be drowned, it’s the ‘I don’t see skin colour’ and ‘can’t you take a joke’ kind, the people who genuinely wouldn’t consider themselves to be racist yet always manage to append that assertion with a ‘but’. It’s the racism of fear, of insecurity, of being unnerved by someone seen as ‘other’.
In People Like Them there are two old barflies in the village who are baffled by the arrival of a mixed-race family in Carmac. They can’t understand why they would want to live among them. Anna explains that Bakary had told her they were seeking authenticity, away from the city, that they wanted to live peacefully.
“Well, we’d like to live in peace too,” mutters one of the men.
A pair of German tourists comes in to the bar asking for directions, and when they leave there are a number of sniggering remarks at the expense of their nationality.
“Here, we laughed at the Germans, because it was allowed – the war gave us that right,” says Anna. “Same for the Dutch and the Belgians. We basically viewed them the same as the Germans. But we’d never had any Black people in Carmac.”
At Constant’s trial he is accused of using racial epithets about Langlois, something that baffles him at first until he realises what the prosecution means.
“Okay, yeah, sometimes, between us we’d say ‘the big darkie’…but it’s…it’s not an insult…It’s got nothing to do with racism, they’re words, they’re just words…”
It would be trite to say that Carmac is France in miniature, but as Europe, Britain included, shuffles ever-further to the right, as whatever fear and anger simmering within people finds its outlet at the expense of those who look different, words become more loaded and more significant.
It doesn’t take an isolated, cliquey community to foster the racism that underpins the events in People Like Them, it’s everywhere, from insinuations and carefully-worded dogwhistles on media platforms to outright threats and violent acts on the streets.
The weaponry of words is fostering an arms race of vocabulary escalated by the proliferation of written digital communication of the modern world. People Like Them is fiction, but events very similar to those described really happened and real people died, people pigeonholed by the prejudice of words but who had lives and dreams and hopes and joys the same as the rest of us.
Their deaths, like those of the Langlois family here, wiped out whole constellations of tiny details. The chocolate milk. The chocolate milk.
People Like Them by Samira Sedira, translated by Lara Vergnaud, is published by Raven Books, price £12.99
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