The term taboo arrived in the Western world via the peoples of the far-flung South Pacific Islands, a noteworthy connection given that both lie at the heart of Paul by Daisy Lafarge. In this Betty Trask award-winning debut novel, we join Frances, an emotionally fragile young woman on a volunteering holiday in the south of France. Having fled from an undisclosed scandal in Paris, Frances is vulnerable and easy prey for charismatic older man, Paul. Deception is in store, of both the wilful, and blindly self-inflicted kind.
Frances is introspective and watchful, in tentative recovery from a breakdown in her last year of university. During that thin, blue, endless time, she would often retreat to the bathtub with her duvet and stare at the ceiling for hours on end, the lure of those ‘bath days’ continuing to exert a dull tug on a psyche now bruised by the mysterious events in Paris.
The whys and wherefores come much later, but Paul arrives early on in the proceedings, engaging Frances for voluntary work on his eco-farm. In his mid-forties, he is, of course, darkly hirsute and sexually magnetic. A self-proclaimed photographer, traveller and adventurer, he is ‘louche and at ease.’
It’s a sure sign of my jaded maturity that this potential Lothario prompted an eye-roll. As a naive student however, would I have been dazzled by his worldliness and flattered by his attention? Mais bien sûr. And that’s exactly how it goes for Frances, swept into a sexual relationship with a dizzyingly intense older lover.
The first time he kisses her, Frances describes his mouth as ‘a dry cave closing over mine,’ a telling symbolism as the relationship quickly becomes suffocating, Paul’s domineering ways highlighting Frances’ ‘immobilising passivity.’
As her Gallic summer continues, Frances muses over her sudden departure from Paris and we realise there is another reason why she was so easily seduced by Paul. Frances, in turn, begins to draw some disquieting conclusions about Paul’s past and proclivities.
Inspired by the artist Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian Journal, Lafarge has recycled elements of it for his fictional namesake. Lafarge’s Paul fancies himself as a wandering anthropologist cum photographer. Like Gauguin, he has travelled extensively in the South Pacific, bringing back artefacts and regaling those around him with tales of native life. Those familiar with Gauguin will know that aspects of his experiences at that time are now considered reprehensible to us culturally. Paul, in his bid to cut loose from ‘all this Western conditioning,’ embraces the taboo.
As the unenlightened Frances continues her numb acquiescence in the face of Paul’s gasp-inducing behaviour, it becomes increasingly impossible to imagine her overcoming her past and his cruelty. In Lafarge’s languorous summer landscape of crumbling churches and misty mountain peaks, sunlight will prove to be the best disinfectant.
An unnerving and compelling portrait of patriarchy and power, from a writer whose debut suggests a marvellous future.
Paul by Daisy Lafarge is published by Granta, 265 pages.