Hannelore Cayre, The Godmother, tr. from the French by Stephanie Smee, Old Street Publishing 2020
Opening line: My parents were crooks, with a visceral love of money.
I re-read this smart, blackly comic French crime novel while holidaying in Weston-super-Mare — a setting about as far removed from Paris as Jupiter (think chips on the beach, donkey rides etc.) And I’ve found myself thinking increasingly about the central figure of ‘The Godmother’ over the last few days, probably due to the news coverage of this Sunday’s French elections.
Meet Madame Patience Portefeux, a respectable 53-year-old French-Arabic translator and interpreter whom life has dealt a series of blows. After years of freelancing and struggling to pay her mother’s care home fees, she realises that all she can expect is a poverty-stricken, pension-less old age. When fate hands her the opportunity to get rich, thanks to her work translating police phone-taps of drug gang conversations, she takes it, fashioning a new identity for herself as The Godmother, drug dealer extraordinaire.
Patience relates her story with wit and verve – all credit to Stephanie Smee here for her assured and sparky translation. And it really is a hugely funny, outrageous tale featuring an eccentric cast of characters, such as DNA the ex-drug-detection-dog. But reading the novel for a second time, I definitely appreciated its satirical dimensions more. The author has some serious things to say about middle-aged women who endlessly prop up their offspring and parents, the financial traps that poorly paid freelancers can fall into, and the way in which French racism and the collapse of the ‘social contract’ (work-hard-and-you’ll-be-rewarded) can lead individuals to a life of crime.
The latter applies to her own parents – Patience is the daughter of a French-Tunisian father and Austrian-Jewish mother – as well as to young men from immigrant communities in the banlieues outside Paris. And it’s notable that this outwardly respectable and very ‘French’ woman is careful not to reveal her own complex heritage to others: it’s vital that she’s perceived as someone who belongs, not a ‘vulgar foreigner or outsider’ — unless she’s posing as a Moroccan drug dealer, that is….
The Godmother won the 2019 European Crime Fiction Prize, the 2019 Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, and the 2020 CWA Crime Fiction in Translation Dagger Award. It was recently made into a warmly received film entitled La daronne / Mama Weed (2020/2021), starring none other than the fabulous Isabelle Huppert.