Fire in the Blood

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Irène Némirovsky, Chatto & Windus, £12.99

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Fire in the Blood is set in the same Burgundy village that Irène Némirovsky depicted in her magnificent Suite Française. But, unlike Suite Française, this is not a description of life in German-occupied rural France.

This novella describes a French countryside which is not much changed from the times of Madame Bovary a century before, although, at the time of writing it in 1941, most of Europe was enveloped in war. Némirovsky herself was wearing the yellow star and was soon to be deported to Auschwitz where she died in 1942.

Between the two world wars, Silvio, the narrator, a man of about 50, has returned to his home village after years abroad. He lives in a large empty house - all that is left of the inheritance he once had - and is regarded with mild contempt by the peasant farmers who have acquired most of his land.

Némirovsky paints a wonderfully atmospheric portrait of village life - the farmers huddled in the dark, smoky cafe, playing cards and exchanging gossip, and, further afield in every sense, the solid bourgeois houses filled with heavy furniture smelling of fresh wax and lavender, bordered by orchards, the only sound on a hot summer day being the bees droning over the fallen plums. It is a seductive picture in some ways and Silvio seems to live a life of self-imposed solitary contentment, his idea of the perfect evening being when his housekeeper has seen to his evening meal, shut the chickens away and left for the night, leaving him to sit in front of the crackling fire with his dog and a bottle of red wine and do nothing, no books, no newspapers, nothing.

But Silvio's wealthy cousins interrupt his solitude by inviting him to the wedding of their daughter Colette. Colette worships her parents and desires only that her marriage should be like theirs. This is a story of marriages and children, land and properties, the ties that bind these families together. Rules of how life should be led, particularly by women, are still set in stone.

The daughters of the better off families - doctors and government officials - are sent to boarding school. On their return they learn household skills from their mothers and are then steered to an arranged marriage, brokered by how well off their family is or whether the girl is pretty enough to earn some more eligibility points.

Slowly and cunningly Némirovsky shows that nothing is as it seems and a gripping story of hypocrisy and unhappiness unfolds. A very satisfying short read.