In her psychological thriller, VANDA (Bitter Lemon Press, London), author Marion Brunet crafts a powerful story about social injustice and the ferocity of motherhood.
Thirty-something Vanda is not your typical mother. She sports tattoos and is all too happy to spend the evening at the local pub before driving home to her shack on the beach. Her six-year-old son, Noé, sleeps under a blanket in the back seat of her ancient car. As is her custom, she will carry him into their dilapidated one-room beach hut and put him to bed, then party with her friends on the sand.
Vanda had always thought of herself as an artist. It was her dream. But when she became pregnant with Noé, she had to earn an income. She now works as a janitor at a psychiatric hospital.
Since he was born, it’s just been Vanda and Noé. But one night at a bar, she sees Noé’s father. She never told him he had a son; she just considers him a sperm donor. Now a graphic designer in Paris, Simon has returned after his mother’s death and asks to see Vanda. When they meet, she’s sure he’s there to see his son. But when Vanda brings up Noé, Simon doesn’t know who she’s talking about.
Yes, Vanda is a free spirit: she loves to drink and party and swim in the ocean. The people at Vanda’s favorite bar have “become a kind of pretend family…. There are others like her [there], damaged goods that forgot to grow old.”
But she is also Noé’s mother and knows that role should come first.
Simon is now 35, and he “realizes that things have shifted. His mother had let him be a child and he can’t remain one. He finds that hard to take.” His fiancé, Chloe, never wanted children, but Simon is drawn to Noé, developing a strange obsession with fatherhood. He’s bitter because Vanda didn’t tell him about Noé; she’s robbed him of his child’s “firsts.”
As far as Chloe’s concerned, 30 years ago, women who accidentally got pregnant and informed the father were accused of “angling for money or making him marry her.” Now if a woman brings up the child on her own, it’s an outrage to deprive the man of his fatherhood.
Regardless, Simon files a petition to assert his rights as Noé’s father, sending Vanda into a blind rage.
The Vibe & Art of Storytelling
Brunet portrays her intimate knowledge of Marseilles, a city blighted by poverty and social inequalities. Readers feel Vanda’s almost savage love for her son, even though she admits she’s not the best mother. But she never pretends to be. She recognizes her flaws, even embraces them. She even carries Noe’s dirty T-shirt at the bottom of her handbag, burying her face in it, his smell comforting when the world gets too scary.
Vanda is certain of one thing—Noé is the most important thing in her life, and she will die for him.
Vanda “didn’t like the whole world, the whole world could have disappeared, only her son and she were important. She would sometimes whisper to him, ‘You and me, Limpet, against the world.’” We feel Vanda teetering on the edge of her precarious life. The only thing grounding her is her son.
When the possibility of losing Noé threatens Vanda, she’s like a volcano about to erupt. We experience her heat and hatred and animalistic jealousy of anyone who tries to take her son away. Including his father.
Despair is the word that comes to mind when reading of Vanda’s and Noé’s plight.
Marion Brunet is a French Young Adult and Literary Fiction author. Her novels have won over 30 prizes. Formerly a special needs educator, she lives in Marseilles. VANDA is her second novel translated into English (translation by Londoner Katherine Gregor).
What I Liked Best
Brunet’s masterful portrayal of the passionate love and protectiveness Vanda has for Noé, even though she recognizes she isn’t the best mother.
Readers who love intimate stories of motherly love for a child, with all its beauty and tragedy, will experience the mounting tension until the fateful conclusion.