The Child by Jules Vallès

“A great nineteenth-century novel translated into English for the first time.”

So says the back cover of this book, and I have to agree.

I was gripped even from the dedication.

“I dedicate this book all those who were bored stiff at school or reduced to tears at home, who in childhood were bullied by their teachers or thrashed by their parents.”

Jacques, the young hero is thrashed by his parents in the very first chapter. They are unhappy people, concerned only with their social status and advancement, and with no love, no empathy at all for their young son.

I worried that this would be a depressing and distressing read. And at times it was, but it was also something special indeed.

A neighbour saw what was happening and came to the aid of young Jacques. She realised that making a fuss would not help and so she offered to beat the child to save his mother the trouble. But instead of beating him she clapped her hand while he yelled, and gave him candy.

And so Jacques’ spirit was not broken.

His story went on, not with great drama but through the things – day-to-day routine, trips, family events and, of course, school – that make up a childhood.

Like so many children, before and since, Jacques had a strong survival instinct, and he only realised in time that his situation was not usual. He carried on.

He didn’t look to his parents, he looked out at the world, observing everything he saw so closely.

And his perspective is beautifully realised – idiosyncratic, sometimes witty, sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, and always utterly believable.

Jacques never received approval from his parents, and so he didn’t look for it from others. Insubordination and independence came to him quite naturally. Particularly at school, which he didn’t care for at all!

I was sorry to have to part company with Jacques when he reached adulthood.

But I won’t forget him, and I’m hoping that the two sequels to this book are translated into English one day. If they aren’t I’m going to have to think about brushing up my French!

But first I must thank NYRB for this translation and The Spotlight Series for encouraging me to pluck this volume from the shelf.

The Child isn’t an easy book to write about, but it is one that you really should read.

12 responses

    • I’ve read very little about this book, but the cover caught my eye and I was intrigued. It’s one of those books that stays with you, both the stories and the trains of thought that it sets off.

  1. This sounds so enchanting – NYRB is not a publisher I’ve explored much but I am going to look into them further I think. It sounds like there are many gems to uncover!

    • There many gems in the NYRB catalogue. A lot of authors you will recognise and one or two that Virago have previously published

    • At the risk of talking in cliches, it’s a case of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!”

  2. I LOVE the cover of this book! It is lovely, but certainly doesn’t hint at the darkness inside, does it? This sounds like a wonderful story, with a lot of depth about childhood’s experiences. I will put it on my wish list.

    Thanks so much for participating in the Spotlight Series!

    • It was the cover that got me, and Paris in the 19th century was irresisitable. It is wonderful and there is darkness, but in some ways that darkness is very positive.

    • It stops you in your tracks doesn’t it?! The book is not quite as startling, but it is thought-provoking, and very readable.

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