Book Review: Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano

I’ve heard Modiano is an acquired taste, and after reading a number of his books, it’s not hard to see why. Take this collection. I wouldn’t call these stories so much as reminisces, meditations on a memory from long ago and seeing what else it conjures up, following the memories to their ends, which are usually brought about more by forgetting the rest or time wiping away any other clues about people the narrator once knew. Despite this unorthodox approach to story telling, I loved it. But it’s not for everyone (the reason it has so many votes on Goodreads and Amazon is that for a few months after his Nobel prize win this was the only book of his widely available in English, not because this is one of his major works).

Still, for anyone who wants to get into Modiano, this is a book that should not be missed. For anyone curious about him, I recommend reading either DORA BRUDER or MISSING PERSON first, as they’re probably his best books, and then either this or THE OCCUPATION TRILOGY, to get a sense of the cumulative effect that pervades his writing.
As others online have said, the first two novellas are quite good. At first they might seem disappointing, as they raise a lot of questions and then end with hardly any of them answered. But these stories linger in your mind. They also slowly build up, adding to each other to form a powerful cumulative effect. After the first story, AFTERIMAGE, about a man trying to recollect and gather everything about a photographer who wanted to be forgotten, I was left thinking, “That’s it?” After the second one, about two boys who are raised by a suspicious group of their parents’ friends while their guardians are off exploring the world, left me with a similar feeling, but also a desire for more.

And the last one, entitled FLOWERS OF RUIN, seems to be the least popular of the bunch, but I liked it a lot. What starts out as an investigation into a double lovers’ suicide that happened some years ago instead becomes a reflection of all the old sites in Paris: all the history they’ve seen that links people together and how these buildings are being torn down to make way for McDonald’s and other such chains. This is where the cumulative effect starts to show, as characters and events that occurred in the other novellas bleed into this one—I’ve been told that each Modiano book could be said to be a chapter in one large book, and after these I’d have to agree. I can see why some might dislike Flowers of Ruin, and there is a lot about it that shouldn’t work, but Modiano’s crisp prose style, understated yet poetic, filled with descriptions and phrases as fleeting as memories, keeps it all fresh.

Final thoughts: if you’re hesitant about Modiano, start with DORA BRUDER or MISSING PERSON. If you’ve read one of his better known works and are intrigued, then go for it. Modiano only gets better the more you read by him. If this is your first and you’re not hooked, give him another chance if it doesn’t strike your fancy. I didn’t think much of him after reading just this collection, but after DORA BRUDER, I wasn’t only a fan of Modiano, I rethought these stories and appreciated them more.

And I’ve only gained appreciation as I read his other books.

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