Book of the Week: To Leave with the Reindeer by Olivia Rosenthal
Updated: Sep 6, 2019
"This polyphonic novel portrays a merciless war waged by humanity on wild nature. This is the battleground where the author tears to pieces today’s education, imposed behaviours and conventions." - Elle France
To Leave with the Reindeer has been described as "a meditation on the parallels between human and animal nature". Entirely written in the second person, the novel opens with her parents' refusal to get a little girl a pet, as it clashes with their ideal of what constitutes a suitable; respectable education for a bourgeois child. Growing up, the young woman muses on the impact this incident had on her life, as a primary example of the difficulty of finding oneself in a repressive environment. Those social frustrations become increasingly difficult to handle as she grows older, and she resents the degree of training to which each individual is submitted. She readies herself for freedom, and questions its limits, by exploring how humans relate to animals.
Indeed, throughout the novel, Rosenthal grants authorial independence and freedom to a maelstrom of voices of specialists of the animal world – vets, farmers, breeders, trainers, a butcher – to create a polyphonic montage about the dangers of domestication - be it human or animal - or standing as a tribute to the irreducible nobility and dignity of all live forms.
Each of those sections echoes and parallels a similar episode in the child's construction: the wild cats carer in the first part evokes the taming of animals and the necessity to raise them from a young age to ensure docility. In the meantime, the author reflects on the social conditioning resting on the shoulders of children, who soon discover that one day they must embrace a career, a place to live, a relationship in conformity with the world they were raised in.
"Apparently lurching, disparate, this novel about domestication in fact coheres, born by a strong rhythmic sensibility and by subtle play on repetition. Poetic and humorous, To Leave with the Reindeer explores our illusions, the destruction of our childhood dreams and the savagery that we hide deep within ourselves." Télérama
"Olivia Rosenthal subtly layers short paragraphs, swinging between the daily life of her homo sapiens and clinical statements about animal life. […] This is a novel that will haunts its reader for days. And that will, above all, awake the animal in us." L’Express
Olivia Rosenthal is a French novelist, performer and teacher of creative writing. She lectures at Université Paris VIII, where she and a colleague founded one of the first Creative Writing MA programmes in France. Winner of numerous prizes, including the Prix Wepler for her 2007 On n’est pas là pour disparaitre (translated into English by Béatrice Mousli as We're not here to disappear, Otis Books/Seismicity Editions, 2015), the Prix du Livre Inter for her 2010 Que font les rennes après Noël? (in English To Leave with the Reindeer) which also won her the Prix Alexandre-Vialatte in 2011. Altogether, she is the author of a dozen novels as well as essays and tales. Rosenthal has also written plays and worked as a performance artist, collaborating with filmmakers, writers and festival directors. Rosenthal created the performance Le Vertige for the 2012 Festival d’Avignon and Les rats, for the Festival Brouhaha: les mondes du contemporain in 2016.
Sophie Lewis has been translating fiction and other literature from French since 2004. Following a stay in Rio de Janeiro, from 2011 to 2015, she began translating from Portuguese. Her translations include works by Stendhal, Jules Verne, Marcel Aymé, Violette Leduc, Emmanuelle Pagano, Natalia Borges Polesso and João Gilberto Noll. She has pursued a career in publishing, running the UK office at Dalkey Archive Press, then as Senior Editor at And Other Stories publisher and currently as fiction editor at the Folio Society. She has also edited translation-rich issues of Litro and Sonofabook magazines. In 2017 her translation of Héloïse is Bald by Emilie de Turckheim received a Scott Moncrieff Prize commendation and her translation of Blue Self-Portrait by Noémi Lefebvre, was shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize.
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