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A Woman’s Battles and Transformations

by Édouard Louis

(Harvill Secker)

Review by Suzanne Harrington


Édouard Louis used to be a poor, gay, bullied kid, with bad teeth called Eddy Bellegueule, who grew up in the village of Hallencourt (pop. 1,300) in northern France. His 2014 debut novel, The End of Eddy, published when he was 21, describes the harsh poverty of village life: violent, misogynistic, homophobic, Le Pen-voting, alcohol-sodden. He called the book a novel – the mother in it is Brigitte, rather than Monique, his own mother’s name – but it reads as memoir; so much so that his older brother went looking for him with a baseball bat after its publication.  

Eddy escaped the village, eventually to Paris, but first to study in the nearest big town, Amiens, after hearing a talk by Didier Eribon. A philosopher and sociologist, Eribon had also grown up poor and gay in northern France a generation earlier; Eribon’s 2009 memoir, Returning to Reims, looks at links between poverty and violence, the rise of the far right and working class disenchantment with the left. He and Eddy Bellegueule became friends, and this friendship inspired Eddy to write, and to become Édouard Louis.  

A Woman’s Battles and Transformations is his fourth book, and his third about the family. Who Killed My Father (2018), examined how the state treats the working class, and how this impacts on family. (Ivo van Hove directs a stage version at the Young Vic Theatre this September).    

Now Louis offers us a slim, tender, hopeful book about his mother.  After 25 years of being ‘a slave to this shithole’, Monique Bellegueule followed a similar trajectory to her middle son, by leaving his father and the village, moving to Paris and changing her name.   

She did the impossible – broke free from the poverty and drudgery mapped out for her, to create a new life. Her escape is almost more extraordinary than her son’s; her determination had been foretold years earlier when she doggedly organised a social services-funded holiday, despite her husband’s derision: ‘At last I’m going to be happy’, she whispered as she looked at the brochures, ‘in the morning, at night, hundreds of times’.

This book came about when Louis found an old photo of Monique aged twenty: ‘Everything about the snapshot…evokes freedom, the infinite possibilities ahead of her, and perhaps, also, happiness.’  Instead, she endured ‘twenty years of her life deformed and almost destroyed by misery and masculine violence’.    

She was married with two kids by twenty; her first husband was an alcoholic, so she left him for another, who humiliated her in public, and demanded domestic slavery. They had three more children together – Eddy and younger twin siblings. He remembers seeing his mother happy just three or four times – when she drank lychee liqueur and listened to her only CD, The Scorpions.

Louis assumed his mother’s life was ‘already fixed forever, in advance’ before she was even forty; boredom, repetition, poverty, his father’s nastiness. Until she left. ‘For some people, a woman’s identity is clearly an oppressive one,’ he writes. ‘For her, becoming a woman had been a conquest.’ She began wearing make-up, styling her hair, wearing better clothes.

Monique even got to smoke a cigarette with Catherine Deneuve.  ‘You see, I’m not the same,’ she said. ‘I’m a real Parisienne now.’  And Louis replied, ‘Yes it’s true, you’re the queen of Paris.’ His observations, poignant but not patronising, never swerve the dysfunction, yet present that one thing routinely crushed by poverty and violence – a sense of possibility.