Wow! What a punch of a book. Eddy Belleguele grows up in a dirt-poor working class family in the north of France. Realising early on he’s gay, Eddy spends the rest of his youth trying to hide his sexual orientation from the macho, homophobic, misogynist and racist environment he’s born into. The End of Eddy is an extraordinary autobiographical novel of survival and courageousness and a truly magnificent book.
Eddy (or Édouard Louis as he’s now known as) grows up in Picardy, a French industrial town, in the late 1990s and early 2000s. His father works at the local factory, the default employer of everyone in Eddy’s social class, until a back injury forces him to stop. His mother is a care worker.
Louis describes a life of Dickensian squalor, a house where ‘sheets of plaster-board and curtains’ substitute doors and walls, where ‘big, black circular stains from damp’ decorate the interior. Violence is everywhere. At home, where Eddy’s temperamental father makes a concerted effort not to beat his children (as his father did) and punches the walls instead (‘the walls were full of wholes’). At school, where Eddy is routinely beaten by two older boys because he’s a ‘faggot’. At the bar, where Eddy’s alcoholic father regularly gets into fights with other drunk men.
Doing homework is frowned upon, being overweight is the ideal, constant TV watching is mandatory as is an interest in football and girls. None of which Eddy subscribes to. Instead he pretends. His daily mantra ‘Today I’m gonna be a tough guy’, is a heart-breaking testimony to his inner battle.
The End of Eddy is a tough read, there’s plenty of graphic violence and psychological terror. What’s extraordinary about this book, though, is how understanding 21-year-old Eddy is towards the people who give him hell. He speaks endearingly of his mother, who clearly has no ability to empathise and is even understanding of his father who, most of the time, is outright malicious to his own son. Louis describes an evil circle of poverty, lack of education, physical and mental abuse, teenage pregnancies and alcoholism from which it is nearly impossible to escape. Eddy’s intense feeling of ‘otherness’ becomes his propel to break out.
Although a bestseller in France, The End of Eddy has been a controversial book. Louis’ warts-and-all account has been criticised by some as a betrayal of his working class roots, family and friends. Especially as Louis, who since moved on to study at one of France’s most prestigious schools to become an author and an intellectual, is now far removed from that reality. I don’t agree that it is a betrayal. Louis’ doesn’t judge or hold grudges; he empathises rather than condemns and leaves you with a desperate sadness for those who are unable to escape.
The End of Eddy is published by Harvill Secker and translated by Michael Lucey, 208 pages.