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Book review: Therese Raquin by Emile Zola

I was used to reading dark and grim books by Emile Zola set in poverty-stricken mining towns, and while Therese Raquin took place in beautiful Paris, it was just as foreboding as Zola’s other novels.

The protagonist of the title lives with her mother-in-law and cousin (who is also her husband) in a haberdashery shop in a dingy Paris arcade. Every day, she sits with her mother-in-law while her husband leaves the shop to work. At first seeming meek and accepting of her small life, she is, in fact, seething with anger at her position.

Once a week, a group of friends and colleagues descends on the apartment the three share for dinner and cards. There, Therese meets Laurent – a clearly imperfect, but available lover.

The two conspire to murder her husband, without realizing that the act will drive them both into madness.

Read by Kate Winslet (a fact which attracted me to the audiobook), the novel is both horrible and addictive. Zola describes in grotesque detail Laurent visiting the place where bodies of people who had drowned in the Seine were laid out.

He also writes about the awful ghost of the murdered husband that lies between the two former lovers in their bed, slimy and decaying.

I think it would be hard to say that Therese Raquin is an enjoyable read, but it is certainly a striking one, in which a couple’s decline into madness is fascinating and awful.

There is extremely little of joy or hope in this novel, apart from the final satisfaction of the betrayed mother-in-law, which in itself also seems monstrous.

Perhaps this novel could be deemed the perfect Halloween read, in which monsters abound.


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