Reviewed by Emma Crowley
Bookseller Laurent Letellier comes across an abandoned handbag on a Parisian street, and feels impelled to return it to its owner. The bag contains no money, phone or contact information. But a small red notebook with handwritten thoughts and jottings reveals a person that Laurent would very much like to meet. Without even a name to go on, and only a few of her possessions to help him, how is he to find one woman in a city of millions?
They do say good things come in small packages and at just 159 pages The Red Notebook by French writer Antoine Laurain I was delighted to discover despite its length is just a real gem and a true find this early in the year. I would describe this as a slightly longer novella rather than just a normal short story but between these pages an awful lot was packed in. So much so that this book deserves to be read again if only to discover some bits of information you may have overlooked on your first read or else just for the simply beautiful, emotive and fulfilling writing. The title is just a hint of what the story has to offer and with a quaint, simple cover my interest was piqued and I began this book in earnest.
The Red Notebook is a book of mystery, reflection, memory, romance and above all else a search for identity that takes the main character on a voyage of discovery and transformation. The premise is simple - a woman returns home late at night after having a meal with friends, she is unlocking the door to her building when she is mugged and her handbag is stolen leaving her with nothing only the clothes she is wearing. Having no keys to enter her apartment or phone to call anybody she begs the kindness of a nearby hotel and stays there the night. But in the morning the receptionist cannot waken her and discovers blood on the pillow and an ambulance is called.
Enter Laurent, a local bookseller out for his morning stroll and on his way to partake in his daily coffee in a nearby café whilst perusing a book or two. He stumbles across an expensive looking handbag placed on top of a bin. Aware the bin collectors are nearby he puts himself in an awkward position. Does he ignore what he has seen or does he go with his conscious and take the bag to a police station knowing it is stuffed full of personal items? Laurent seems to be a kind and upstanding citizen so he takes the handbag but the police are too busy. Determined to do the right thing Laurent begins a quest that will take him on a journey that will change his way of thinking and his life encountering many people that will ultimately may or may not lead him to the mystery owner of the bag.
I wanted to saviour every page as we read of how Laurent (despite his misgivings of rifling through a woman's handbag) pieces together a profile of the woman he is looking for. There are enough clues in the bag even though there is no i.d for Laurent to begin his mission and what a search he undertakes that leads us all around Paris as both the reader and Laurent slowly piece together the lifestyle of this woman. I felt we were getting a real picture of this woman even though we don't hear her viewpoint until later in the book. This is the mark of a fabulous writer who can build a picture of someone through objects, photos and the contents of their handbag when the woman in question can not do so herself. I tried as best I could to read each page slowly and make this book last as long as possible but I wasn't slow enough and read this in a few short hours. At the same time I was keen to discover how something that unfortunately happens all around the world on a daily basis can cause lives to alter for the better through a horrible encounter.
The red notebook of the title gives us an even deeper insight into the mysterious woman (yes we do find out her name but I'm not going to give it away) her likes and dislikes, her fears, hopes and ambitions and this really brings the story to life. This is a witty, whimsical book that is not heavy but rather an enlightening read that gives the reader a lot more than the cover may suggest. In a way it is like Laurent is in the getting to know you phase of a relationship even if it is one sided through no circumstance of his own. He likes the picture that is emerging of this mysterious girl and something inside is making him keep going despite the uncertainty of the outcome. Dotted throughout are numerous literary references which for a bookworm like me was just heaven and the fact the main character was a bookseller was an added bonus. Does Laurent find the owner of the bag and what of all the wonderful characters he meets along the way? You need to pick up this great little book and spend some of your time in the company of Laurent and co. to discover the answers and became lost in the fabulous storytelling of Antoine Laurain. Hopefully more books by this talented author will be translated into English in the future, I for one will be keeping an eye out.
Many thanks to Sophie at ED PR for sending me this to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.