September 2019

by Helen Elliott

‘The Godmother’ by Hannelore Cayre
A sardonic French bestseller about a godmother, in the organised crime sense of the word

A figure in a black cape and a high-heeled boot lifted mid-stride is silhouetted on the cover of The Godmother (Black Inc.; $27.99). Not the sweetie from a fairytale? Mais non! This is Patience Portefeux, the creation of French writer and filmmaker Hannelore Cayre (translated by Stephanie Smee). Cayre also practises criminal law in the Court of Appeal of Paris. Her creative interest, stimulated by her work, is a desire to present an alternative side of la vie française to that presented by the national tourism bureau. Published in her home country in 2017 as La Daronne (which better conveys the pun on “godfather” as crime boss), her novel is a tart and sardonic tale of one woman’s irregular life. It was a bestseller in France and won the European Crime Fiction Prize.

Patience is 53. For 25 years she has worked as a translator in the police department, transcribing – and intermittently polishing up – recordings of telephoned drug deals among Arab-speaking gangs. She’s employed under the table, and underpaid, not to mention overworked. She lives in a horrible suburb and can barely afford to pay for her two daughters’ university education and her mother’s aged-care home. Still, her years in this playground have given Patience singular expertise.

It wasn’t always like this. Patience, an only child, grew up with a lucid and practical understanding of the power of money. She expects you, the reader, to note this:

My fraudster parents had a visceral love of money. They loved it, not like you love an inert object stashed away in a suitcase or held in some account. No. They loved it like a living, intelligent being that can create and kill, that is endowed with the capacity to reproduce.

Madame and Monsieur Portefeux, barely emerging intact from World War Two, are fantastical characters. How they managed to have a daughter who wears demure blue velvet dresses and can hold a tranquil conversation with Audrey Hepburn in a Genevan restaurant is part of the romantic backstory. Patience doesn’t have to imagine the pleasures of money, she is intimate with them. Nor does she have to imagine the joys of true love because she had that for some short years with her husband. She now has a high-ranking police officer as a lover – a kind, incorruptible and loyal man who loves her with thought and tenderness. In this black fairytale, the cop is the prince who should rescue his beloved.

Patience could seem as if she is in need of rescuing. She isn’t. She’s quite capable of taking care of herself and when she sees an opportunity to make a drug deal of her own, she’s in. Breeding will out. Cayre is droll and without illusions about human nature. That she describes the lives and crimes of the petty drug dealers without social-working them is bracing. And she plots so cunningly she might have written the entire French TV series Spiral, or a compact version of The Wire. A film of the novel has been made with Isabelle Huppert, whose own expertise is in weary sophistication. For the aptly named Patience, it sounds like perfect casting.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

September 2019 edition cover
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