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A thrilling mix of French noir and American Western that charts a family’s struggle for freedom and justice in a hostile mountain community.
In the godforsaken valley of the Black Rimstone, four siblings meet by the viaduct, a place of their own away from home and daily life, which hold so little for them: Mark, who reads in secret against his father’s orders; Matthew, who understands the forest, the river, and all their creatures; Mabel, who wields her stunning beauty in pursuit of pleasure and independence; and Luke, so often pitied and dismissed as simpleminded, but whose fantastic dreams reveal an uncommon wisdom. Together they live as one, bound by an unshakable bond.
Hanging over them, and the rest of the valley, is the bleak prospect of work in the power plant, constructed and controlled by the fearsome Joyce. Having arrived a stranger, he owned the entire town within ten years, and now keeps a stranglehold on it through money and violence. But after generations are used and spit out in service of one man’s greed, there comes a breaking point.
Winner of the Prix Jean Giono, this masterful, parable-like novel bears witness to the power of nature and the promise of rebellion.
Release date: February 28, 2023
Publisher: Other Press
Print pages: 400
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The man and the man’s shadow preceded the woman along the wooded slope. He labored to advance, leaning forward, his back crushed beneath the weight of a heavy bundle wrapped in deer hide that contained the couple’s belongings; shells hanging from his belt tinkled each time he set a foot down upon the earth. The woman carried nothing on her back, but a child in her arms. The child was not crying, and it wasn’t sleeping either. The man walked cautiously, primarily to avoid hazards, but also because he was on the lookout for any sign of tracks that might suggest they weren’t the first.
They came to the summit of a ridge. The man glanced in the direction of the valley below them, then he looked at the woman, and she at her child. Wariness swelled in the man’s eyes. He wanted to continue on down the slope, and she grabbed him by the arm. Maybe she tried to dissuade him, on the pretext that something monstrous surely lay concealed in the dense tangles of vegetation, which in places revealed the dark waters of a sinuous river. Nobody knows for sure. And nobody knows whether or not he replied, or if his silent determination was enough to convince her to see what she wasn’t seeing, to convince her that a dream was being born, to open herself to a great undertaking of staying put, to suppress the silent chaos of their trek. Nobody knows, nobody remembers, because in the years that were to follow, neither he nor she would think to write of their shared fate, and it has since been lost, and they have since been forgotten, no living on in myth, no true glory. The Black Rimstone was what the place came to be called. Nobody knows who chose the name, perhaps the man, perhaps the woman. Most likely one of their descendants. For the moment, there is no need to say more. There is nothing left to be done other than allow the landscape to unfold like the blade of a knife long imprisoned in a handle etched with names and faces. This isn’t so long ago. It would suffice to wind back the clock-work mechanism of time, to have its hands come to a stop at that morning hour whose moment was fixed on the liquid face of the river, to take up the story well after the arrival of that first man and that first woman, the moment when a body, reduced to a corpse, its throat slit and washed clean of all its blood, drifted along on the waters of the river, swirled and spun, dashed against the rocks, to finally be impaled on a broken branch and worn away by the force of the turbulence. To return to the river’s edge, among the descendants of that first man and that first woman by its banks, and to imagine what came before with the help of what came after.
Not one bird, not one reptile, not one mammal, not one insect, not one tree, not one blade of grass, not one stone was moved by the scene. Just one man, in the crowd, felt a dull and inexplicable pain in his belly, like a wrenching prescience of his own end, a germinating of death that would give birth to a new world, driving some to leave and others to remain.
The only way to tell the story of what took place next would be to paint over the silence with words, even if words can never suffice in translating a reality, and it isn’t truly necessary. And yet we must. Bear witness to the paltry and the sublime. Return to that ridge, up there, all the way up there, atop that ridge where they appeared, that first man with his burden and that first woman with her child, a few centuries ago now, that woman who cast a look full of hope across a verdant cradle that she thought had been made for them, for their children to come, and all their children’s children; and that man, not unlike a beast slumbering at the entrance to its burrow, under the humble sway of worlds that lie buried beneath.
Among those present on either bank of the river, frozen like wax figures in a museum, watching a corpse reduced to the state of a branch caught on a second branch, was quite possibly, and even quite surely, the murderer.
Eyes met, elusive, stunned, suspicious, eager, or idle, all searching for a clue in the hope of writing the tale that ended with the floating corpse, trying to surmise what force had reduced it to such a state and pushed it out into the current. Guesses would be made, each man would have his own, assumptions which often overlapped, and yet none of them had the ring of absolute truth. A lack of evidence.
In the days that followed, a few men even found themselves tempted to divert the river, believing that in this way they might erase the nightmare by commanding the body to go back up the river’s current and disappear from sight. They were so few in number that they very quickly gave up, returning to the herd, not wanting to owe anyone anything, not wanting to be excluded from the building of this new world. Because that’s what it truly amounted to: the construction of a world from a crucified corpse that had been dumped in the river, in those decisive hours that clumped together like flies on flypaper, languid hours filled with memories fashioned in silence.
It’s time now to let the words come, without trying to spare anyone whatsoever, the innocent no more than the guilty, a string of words that will disappear in the end, but that will live on as long as they inhabit our memories.
At the moment this story begins, they knew nothing yet of this world in the making, but the old world had birthed them with the unique end of sending them off into another. They knew nothing of the story still being written, but they were all prepared to tell one themselves, after their own fashion, some with a quaver to their voice, and others with enough pride to appear unaffected. And that is exactly what they did: they told a story, the one that finally brought them together, that propelled them toward a goal entirely different from the discovery of the guilty party’s identity.
Who is to say today that they did not succeed? Who would dare?
There were four of them, but they made one, they are one now, and they will be one forever. A single legible sentence made of four slivers of flesh, coiled, soldered together, galvanized. Four siblings, four lives interwoven, joined one to the next in a single phrase that is in the process of being written. Three brothers and a sister, born of the Black Rimstone.
When school let out, the children would head to a viaduct formed by the imposing arch that supported the railway trestle, under which the river flowed like a thread through the eye of a needle. On evenings when the weather was fair, the sun tore the surface into thousands of grimacing mouths, tattooing shadows across it in some ephemeral symbolism, one that remained in perpetual motion only to disappear at dusk, erased by an asinine god. When the weather was poor, tatters of fog unraveled in misty strips, like tiny ghosts hesitating between two worlds. Fat drops of water detached themselves from the arch, kidnapping the light as they followed the dizzying course that would lead to their death. In a great eddy beneath the viaduct, a fisherman’s boat fastened to a pile smacked at regular intervals against the pier made of rectangular granite blocks. It was almost as if something was alive beneath it, giving rise to that movement that jerked at the rope, some sort of entity larger than a body, an entity without desires, unjudging, without any sense of hierarchy, just there to detachedly call attention to the hopes of man, to give the illusion that there was a time when they were not in vain. By making their way to the river, Mark, Matthew, and Mabel were postponing the moment they would get home. There was so little for them there that they had made this place their kingdom. Luke was waiting for them already, because he no longer went to class, not since their schoolteacher had told his parents that there was nothing more she could do for him in a tone signaling defeat. Reunited at last, they lingered for long moments, lost in their memories, giving free rein to their emotions, each of them fanning the flames as they sat side by side, like alley cats abandoning the gutters to wander the rooftops.
With all the wisdom of her ten years, it was Mabel who first came up with the idea to bring ropes that could be suspended from the viaduct. Her brothers thought it was a splendid idea, and wondered how it was that they hadn’t thought of it before her. They scaled the least steep of the arches, each of them carrying two ropes coiled over their shoulders, just like mountaineers. They reached the summit of the viaduct, which towered over the entire valley and its quarry, on the downstream side, and upriver, the power plant, the dam, and then a row of houses, which had gradually taken on the appearance of a town, but looked more like an immutable trompe l’oeil, seeing as no one was allowed to build any additional buildings, not even a chicken coop, without authorization.
The children had thought of everything. They hooked their ropes tightly around the guardrails, two of them separated by about sixty feet and two others directly opposite them. Matthew had suggested they double up each rope, to be on the safe side. They then threw a length into the void and fastened the other end around their waists. Mark was tasked with securing them, having learned a good many different knots from a book.
Matthew made his way down first, to demonstrate how it should be done. Once he had reached the bottom, he motioned with his arm. The others joined him, and the four of them remained like that, suspended in this chosen void, like spiders at the end of a silken thread, on the lookout for the arrival of the train, united in silent agreement.
As soon as they heard the locomotive roaring in the distance, the children began to scream, blending their cries into a single voice to reduce their fear to ashes and commune in a shared and immediate joy. The vibrations produced by the train as it hurtled at full speed along the rails intensified as it approached, until they reached the ropes and instantaneously passed through the children’s slender bodies like a perfect wave of pure, living sensation. A feeling that they had somehow escaped the flow of time, multiplied by four. Overwhelming emotion.
After the train had receded in the distance, the kids looked at each other in silence, their bodies relaxing, keenly aware of the world that surrounded them. After a moment, Luke laughed as he began to swing back and forth. The others followed suit, laughing as well, with the feeling that even more air was entering into their lungs, but not the same air that was down below on solid ground. The river, the trees, and the sky blended together as if they were in one of those glass globes that you flip over to change the landscape.
In the beginning, they drove away the birds who were nesting under the arch of the bridge. Some challenged them, like little matadors protecting their brood, or just their territory, and this so earnestly that soon the kids got in the habit of tucking a stick into their belts with which to defend themselves, inventing secret musketeer weapons as they laughed all the harder. One bird in particular, a falcon, according to Matthew, who knew all about birds and about everything nature shared with them, almost managed to put one of Luke’s eyes out, and he retained from this encounter a cicatrix on his right cheek, a battle scar of which he was quite proud and that he wouldn’t have rid himself of for anything in the world, going as far as to secretly scratch away at the scar to be certain it left a mark that wouldn’t fade, a symbol of his bravery. Over the course of their encounters, the birds came to accept the children’s inoffensive presence. They didn’t attack them anymore, no longer provoked them, brushing against them on occasion, as if to greet them, to let them know that they had become a part of their environment, that they were necessary components of its balance; and yet the birds continued to keep an eye on them.
They were still nothing more than kids defying fate, without any ambition other than those moments of absolute freedom, the memories of which they would keep until their deaths. They laughed madly in the face of the danger, never even considering that the rope might fray and even less that it could break. In turn and in secret, they each contemplated cutting their own rope, but never mentioned this to the others. If they had done so, perhaps they all would have agreed to take the plunge together. In the days that came, it would cross none of their minds that the game wasn’t worth being played.
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