Nancy Huston, a bilingual Canadian living in France, won the Prix Femina in 2006.  She has since translated her French novel into English and now finds it shortlisted for the 2008 Orange Prize.  That Prix Femina augurs well.  It’s a French prize judged by a purely female panel …..

Huston’s novel is told in reverse chronological sequence.  It’s not a device of which I’m particularly fond.  The danger of knowing the end that is about to be uncovered can lead to a loss of interest and a failure to read to the end (as in my case Sarah Water’s The Night Watch). Not true here, I’m pleased to say.

Fault Lines tells the tale of four generations of the same family.  The spacing of 20 years between each episode (2004, 1984, 1962, 1944-45) and the diverse locations (California, Haifa, Toronto, Germany) distingush the details in each section sufficiently to keep the reader turning the pages. Events in section 2 revealing the root causes of the dysfunction of section 1 etc. Dysfunction and misanthropy increasing as events become more contemporary. But there’s actually no way of knowing that until you’ve read to the end of the novel …

… which means that the obnoxious child narrator of section 1, Sol, is an absolute shock to the system.  A spoilt 21st century brat of a magnitude unrivalled, reared by modern, indulgent, over-protective parents. He is the culmination of the ripple effect.  The child narrator of the 4th section, the one most badly served by history, however, is the most sympathetic of them all, with debate to be had as to at which point in her troubled history, the damage was done.

This makes Huston’s novel not only a fascinating commentary on the effects of history and war but also a commentay of the effects of bad parenting.

Less successful, however, are the narrative voices, in particular that of Sol. How many 6-year olds with a fully fledged messiah complex would pleasure themselves while watching brutal internet images of events in Iraq?  Fortunately the successive (or should that be the preceding) generations become less flawed until the final, most emotive, section rings true.

That reservation aside, this is a very readable work, despite the heaviness of its themes. No idea how it compares to the rest of this year’s shortlist, but I definitely preferred it to last year’s Orange prize winner.

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