In 1917, it was hardly surprising to encounter a French town mourning the death of a young person. What's remarkable about the village in Phillippe Claudel's debut novel is how isolated residents feel from World War I – even though they can see the front from a nearby hill. The deaths of thousands of young men leave villagers largely untouched; instead, they are haunted by the murder of a little girl.
Morning Glory Bourrache, whose body is pulled from the river, was the second of four innocents the town lost that year. Twenty years on, the policeman who searched for her killer spells out the losses and the ways they intertwine.
"By a Slow River," which won the 2003 Prix Renaudot for outstanding French novel, serves less as a whodunit than as a haunting exercise in despair. Claudel gives readers the solution to the mystery, but the answers aren't there to provide comfort. "We kill a lot in the course of a day, in thoughts and in words, without fully realizing it. In light of all these abstract crimes, actual murders are pretty rare," muses the gendarme, as he unfolds his tale of obsessive grief and trumped-up charges. "In fact, it's only in wars that our actions keep up with our impulses." "Slow River" can be slow-moving, but it features several wrenching twists – the last one delivered just before the final page. Grade: B+
– Yvonne Zipp