No and Me

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No and Me By Delphine de Vigan, book reviewThirteen year old Lou Bertignac is a bright and inquisitive Parisian schoolgirl; in fact she’s so bright that she’s in a class two years ahead of her age group. Lou spends her free time conducting all manner of experiments and investigations, logging the results with almost obsessive diligence, in order to keep herself occupied at home; her dad works all hours and often has to work away from home, while her mother is little more than a ghostly presence in the family apartment since the death of Lou’s younger sister.

Put on the spot by one of her teachers, Lou has only seconds to come up with a topic for a presentation each student must make in front of their classmates. She tells the teacher she intends to do a project on homelessness and when the teacher offers to give her the names of some contacts who might be able to help her, she refuses, telling him she already has someone to interview. The trouble is that although Lou has someone in mind, she’s never spoken to her so she has no idea if she’ll agree to be interviewed.

No is eighteen and spends her days begging for money and bumming smokes at Austerlitz station. To Lou’s surprise No agrees to be interviewed and although Lou subsidises their meetings and can’t always be sure that No will turn up, the two strike up a tentative friendship. By the time Lou has gathered the material for her presentation she’s already made her mind up to help No get off the streets. She enlists the help of her friend classmate, Lucas, in her scheme to change No’s life for the better and when she manages to persuade her parents to let No live in the family apartment, it looks like the arrangement could be beneficial all round. But, in spite of her precocity, Lou has yet to learn that things, in the words of her teacher M. Marin, “are what they are” and it’s a lesson that hits Lou hard.

When “No and Me” was first published in France it was as a novel for adults, and this idea was reaffirmed for me when I saw on the book cover that Delphine de Vigan’s novel had been serialised on BBC radio 4’s “A Book at Bedtime”. It wasn’t until I later spotted an alternative paperback version released at the same time but with a very different cover that the book’s publisher in Britain has chosen to issue two editions, with the other being aimed at the teen market. This is an excellent strategy because “No and me” has much to offer both readerships.

“Credit too must be given to George Miller for his excellent translation which reads comfortably in English but has an underlying essence of Frenchness.”

Younger readers will be able to identify with Lou’s character while older readers will find her a charming and engaging narrator. Lou has the same worries and questions as any other girl of her age but things are more difficult for her, partly because she is in a class of students older than she is who have more freedom and experience, and partly because she questions so much. She’s isolated because of the age gap between her and her classmates and would have nobody if it wasn’t for her friendship with Lucas. But Lou knows that Lucas is not the sort of boy her parents would want her to be friends with; he’s two years older than the rest of the class and he’s not interested in school. The relationship between Lou and Lucas is an interesting thread running parallel with, and often overlapping the main plot.

No and me” offers few surprises, at least not for adult readers but the engaging way this short novel reaches its quietly tragic ending is clever and wills the reader to stick with it. The issue of homelessness is tackled much as you would expect and is, even for younger readers, perhaps a bit too simplistic. The storyline that sees No’s arrival in the apartment awaken Lou’s mother from years of quiet depression is much more interesting and her pain is portrayed brilliantly. So too, is Lou’s long suffering father who has no idea how isolated his daughter has become, but still keeps bringing home more academic tasks to absorb his protege.

I can’t really see this novel appealing so much to young British readers in spite of it being a very fine coming of age piece. The trouble is – if it has to be troubling – that “No and me” is positively oozing with that Gallic je ne sais quoi and suffers to an extent from a lack of humour, taking itself far too seriously to really grab an English audience. Me? I was transported to the lycee where I joined my French counterparts in lessons over twenty years ago, but I’m a Francophile so I relished the utter Frenchness of “No and Me”.

What I liked best was the feeling of “other-worldliness” conveyed in the friendship between No and Lou. There’s always a strong sense that No won’t come back, that something tragic will befall her, or else she’ll let down Lou one time too many, the beauty is in how de Vigan keeps us guessing as to how exactly this shaky friendship will fall apart. What is basically a predictable and unoriginal story has been given some real style by Delphine de Vigan and this is largely down to Lou as a narrator; at times this bookish, precocious girl can be highly intuitive, at others she gets it wildly wrong and what the reader must do is work out when we can take her narration at face value and when we should be more sceptical. Credit too must be given to George Miller for his excellent translation which reads comfortably in English but has an underlying essence of Frenchness.

If I’d have known in advance that this was being touted as crossover fiction I’d probably have given it a wide berth; sometimes, like now, ignorance is the better option.

Recommended to adults and teens alike.

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No and Me
by Delphine de Vigan

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Written by Mary Bor
Mary Bor

Aspiring travel writer and avid Yugophile living in the UK and Slovenia. Loves (in no particular order) Scandinavian crime fiction, Indian food, walking, scavenging, Russian dolls

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