"I find myself wanting to translate the world inside..."
Sagesse LaBasse, the teenage protagonist of Claire Messud's The Last Life, lives in a fragile world held together by the secrets of its past. Her family owns the Hotel Bellevue, a summer retreat for the well-to-do, set on the cliffs of southern France; the view is back toward Algeria, which her paternal grandparents fled during its struggle for independence from France. As her grandmother laments, "Every morning, I wake up and look out my window at the Mediterranean sea, vast and creeping, and I smell the pines and the heat on the breeze, rising up the clifftop, and I'm in Algiers again. I live, still, in my heart, in Algeria."
The loss of their homeland is always present to the LaBasses, and the consequent search for identity both reflects and compounds other difficulties. Sagesse's father ("fleshy, ingratiating, explosive") languishes under his own father's control, and is often unfaithful to Sagesse's mother, an American who tries to pass as French. Meanwhile, their young son, Etienne, is so severely mentally and physically impaired that his birth is likened to "the clanging of their prison door." Sagesse's grandmother looks on with cool resignation, and her grandfather, the family's hot-headed patriarch, will let no one rest. When, late one night, the old man fires his rifle into a group of children swimming at the hotel's pool, no one is seriously injured, but the family's livelihood is put at risk, and long-simmering resentments find an outlet.
Sagesse is the perfect narrator for this fractured situation. She is neither French, nor American; not a girl, yet not quite a woman. Her grandfather's rash act causes her to lose her friends at school, and she is forced to "seek out the very pot-smokers I had...readily disparaged little over a month before." These new friends, upon realizing her family's past (having been French colonists, they are suspected of being racists, and members of the National Front) and relative wealth, also abandon her. With guests trickling away from the hotel, and tensions rising within the LaBasse family, Sagesse tries to understand what remains, and what place there might be for her.
Fortunately, while her life may be painful, she never finds it dull. Sagesse's language is rich and evocative, full of descriptive power. Here, for example, she witnesses the market: "There were vegetable men and fruit women and stalls selling both, blushing mounds of peaches alongside plump and purple eggplants...pale, splayed organs of fennel pressing their ridged tubes and feathered ends up against the sugar-speckled, wrinkled carcasses of North African dates...the fishmongers sold their bullet-eyed, silver-skinned, slippery catch, blood-streaked fillets and orbed, scored steaks, milky scallops and encrusted oysters...." And here, a painting of the Bay of Algiers: "its apron of azure sea, erratically white-capped, broken by the sandstone finger of the port...the white rise of the city, a thousand precise terraces and roofs climbing into the sunlit sky, the European curlicues and the higgledy-piggledy casbah, all their outlines drawn as if with a single hair, interspersed with delicate little palms and cypresses and other trees of variegated greens, and with broad, brown avenues like branches."
A brilliant, complex world is formed by the accretion of these images, and they are juxtaposed and spur each other seamlessly, multiplying atmosphere and complicating plot lines. While most of the novel's events take place around 1990, Sagesse tells of them from a time almost a decade later (when she is a graduate student of the "history of ideas" at Columbia). This frame, constructed of occasional asides and short passages, allows a fluidity where revelations from the past and future cause momentum to shift and whirl -- the dead rise, their movements sharper and words more portentous with the reader's knowledge of coming tragedy. This later perspective also enables Sagesse to add deft hints and wise commentary. Looking back on herself, for instance, she says, "Children do not have words to ask and so do not imagine asking; not asking and not imagining, they eradicate distance: they take for granted that everything, someday, will be understood."
The Last Life stands as a testament to reflection, to making sense of an unruly past. It is also a kind of autobiography, an attempt to constitute an identity. In its ebb and flow of images, action, and ideas, the narrative deals so well with this attempt, implicitly, that it's unfortunate that it must also be treated explicitly. Frequent asides concerning identity and the nature of the self ("the one thing that would not leave me: the only and inadequate definition of my 'I.'") seem unnecessary; they lure Sagesse into self-dramatization, and contain the novel's most uneven prose. Some readers may find that such self-analysis helps characterize the narrator, but it's difficult to believe the story wouldn't be stronger without it.
Still, the novel's concern with such weighty questions is representative of its, and Sagesse's, fearlessness. As she seeks the truth about her family and herself, she also reflects on politics and race, dreaming of a "Mediterranean culture democratic and polyphonous" while simultaneously acknowledging its impossibility. This seeming contradiction must be borne, she learns, since to blindly accept what has happened is to forget alternatives and to repeat mistakes. "I live as if this might-have-been existed," she writes, "shimmering in the imaginary; and if it is but an 'as if,' I have learned, then it is none the less real for that."
The Last Life ultimately concerns itself with questions of fate and self-determination. In a world of disasters, Sagesse wonders if and how they might have been avoided: "The abiding question...was it fate? Is our ending inscribed in our beginning -- and, if so, in whose beginning?" The "obvious answer," she says, is that we cannot escape our fate, that our choices are illusory. The richness found in her story, however, suggests the less obvious answer -- that we might affect our fate, and better confront the present and future, if we work to come to an understanding with our past.