Olivier Adam is the author of many novels and children’s books, several of which have been adapted for film, including his debut Je vais bien, ne t’en fais pas. In 2004 he won the Prix Goncourt for his short story “Passer l’hiver.” He is also a founder and current member of the program planning committee of the “Les Correspondance de Manosque” literary festival.
The protagonist-narrator of Cliffs bears some striking similarities to Adam. They share the same first name, are both writers and suffer from depression, which may explain why the novel reads, emotionally, like a real memoir—sans melodrama.
The novel follows the protagonist’s reflections on his life over one night—the twentieth anniversary of his mother’s suicide. He rests in the same hotel room his family stayed in the night of his mother’s death, which is situated on the same sea and cliffs where she killed herself. Lying down, Olivier attempts to move away from his past, and his present is precariously shelved, as if on the same cliff his mother threw herself from. On the first page he discusses this sundering, which his future is indebted to as he takes his plunge:
I’m thirty-one and my life is just beginning. I don’t have a childhood, and from now on, any childhood will do. My mother is dead and everyone I cared about is gone. Life has wiped me clean like the empty table at which Claire and I are sitting and at which Chloé has pulled up a chair, a sweet smile playing at the corners of her mouth.
It is his daughter Chloé for whom Olivier decides to restart his life, and he may relive his childhood vicariously through her while trying to avoid conferring the same travails he experienced onto her.
The novel could be read as Olivier’s final thoughts on his life to date as he falls through the darkness towards the uncompromising rocks, paralleling his mother’s passing. Or it could simply be his rationalization to move on. Nonetheless, his narrative traces memories of his night-walking, earth-consuming mother, his years of escapist sex, drug and alcohol abuse, the mutual disgust he and his brother Antione feel for their oppressive and absent father, his independent years in Paris, and the death of two close friends. Throughout, the ghost of Olivier’s mother continuously appears, demonstrating the extreme degree to which her death preoccupies him. Depressing? Yes, but it is frosted with a rectifying layer of uncertain hope.
Adam’s mastery of the language (and Sue Rose’s deft and thoughtful translation) is what makes Cliffs so engaging. It reads like the music of Billie Holiday, Nick Drake, and/or Leonard Cohen sounds. (In the novel, Olivier recalls listening to all three). Olivier’s narrative voice takes the form of a mix between the unvarnished Cohen and Drake, while the complexity and subtle emotional intensity of Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” mark the tale of his mother’s suicide. To gather a sense of the novel as a whole, one considers Drake’s “Pink Moon:” short, sweet, melodic, melancholic and, after the first spin, leaves the listener bursting with the sense of unperceived meaning, and wishing to go again.
At the end of the book a summarizing “I’m thirty-one…” reprise reveals much of the tone:
I’m thirty-one and it doesn’t matter. I know how heavy the dead are. And I know about bad luck. I know about loss and devastation, the taste of blood, the wasted years and those that trickle through your fingers. I know how deep the sand is, I’ve experienced its resistance, its soft, ambiguous material. I know that nothing is dependable, that everything unravels, cracks and shatters, that everything withers and everything dies. Life damages the living and no one ever puts the pieces back together or picks them up.
Ultimately, the sea is not just a place for death, it also takes hold of some of its more common connotations: cleansing and reflection. Cliffs is spectacular from top to bottom.