"Private Property" by Paule Constant [25 Days of the BTBA]
As with years past, we HIGHLIGHTED (past tense) the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We had a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts prompted you to read at least a few of these excellent works.
Click here for all past and future posts in this series.
Private Property by Paule Constant, translated by Margot Miller and France Grenaudier-Klijn
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
Why This Book Should Win: A university press deserves to win this prize one of these years. The boarding school the protagonist attends is named “The Slaughterhouse School,” which is creepy/gross/intriguing.
The person who was going to write this piece wasn’t able to get it done on time, leaving me with a bit of a dilemma . . . I haven’t read this book, so rather than make up something in sincere, I thought it would be more useful to cobble together parts of Claudine Fisher’s introduction, and the review that Jessa Crispin wrote for NPR. Just trying my best . . .
From Jessa Crispin’s review:
There is no greater horror to a child than standing out. Being different means being easy prey. When your daughter comes home crying because someone has made fun of her freckles, her hair, her thick glasses, you might try to console her with “one day you’ll appreciate those freckles, you’ll find them beautiful,” but she won’t be comforted. A child wants only to blend in, to be absolutely the same as everyone else.
Tiffany, the 9-year-old at the center of Paule Constant’s Private Property, is not like the other girls, and she has no mother to wipe away the tears. Her parents, French colonialists living in Africa in the years leading up to the Algerian War, have sent her back to France alone to live and be schooled at the Convent for Slaughterhouse Ladies. The nunnery’s name sums up the atmosphere of the place, where the playground becomes the setting for young girls’ bloodsports and the nuns dole out about as much softness as the scratchy stiffness of their garments. The other girls tease and torment Tiffany for her African origins, her missing mother and for the way she does her hair. Every time she reaches out for solace or companionship, she is, at best, met with indifference. Understandably, she strives to become an invisible observer, at a remove from everyone else. [. . .]
The author surprises with her quirky imagery and powers of observation, like her description of the Mother Superior’s habit: “When she stood it was as if a ship had hoisted all its sails.” Also perfectly conveyed are Tiffany’s ostracism on the playground (“The recess periods were spent in a pretense of playing so as not to displease the Lady, and at not playing so as not to irritate those who were playing. She played at playing . . .”) and the daily torture chamber that is the lunch cafeteria.
Small of scale does not mean small of consequence. That goes for the diminutive Tiffany as well as Private Property itself. Those moments that look so tiny, those school humiliations and emotional kicks at home, continue to shape us into adulthood. Constant’s portrait of a little girl lost, someone who would be happier to camouflage herself in the furniture than to take the spotlight, will loom large in the mind.
And from Claudine Fisher’s intro:
Private Property serves as a fictional backdrop for Constant’s own educational experience when she herself was sent to France while her parents were assigned to various posts in Africa, South America, and Indochina. The boarding school, modeled on the one Constant attended, is transformed fictionally into “La Pension des Sanguinaires,” taking its name from the street on which it is found, named for the slaughterhouse at the end of the road, and is translated as “The Slaughterhouse School,” underscoring the violent nature of the child’s experience there.
The irony in Tiffany’s repatriation is that the homeland does not feel like home. The colonial Africa of the 1950s (Ouregano) is her adopted “real” homeland. Though a white child, Tiffany was in harmony with her African roots. Her attachment to the natural environment, its people, and African animals provided her with a sense of self. She now lives a doubly heartbreaking experience when arriving in the southwest of France: separation from the land she loved and from her parents, especially her mother, who is distant and unapproachable but nevertheless her mother. France becomes, in part, a land of exile and the boarding school a jail, another exile of the soul, compared to her free-spirited and roaming lifestyle in the African countryside.
And there we are. Twenty-five books in twenty-five days . . . And Tuesday we’ll all find out which ten move on . . .