"The Last Life"

A novel splendidly evokes the wounds of French-Algerian exiles.

Published September 3, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

"The Last Life" is so convincingly narrated by a 15-year-old Algerian-French girl that it's easy to forget that Claire Messud is American; the prose feels thick with the languid air of the Riviera. And unlike many coming-of-age novels by American writers, "The Last Life" isn't confined to an adolescent's internal musings. Instead, the book is anchored by the political history of the Algerian-French and the scars of their repatriation.

The novel revolves around Sagesse LaBasse and her family, who fled their homeland for France during the Algerian War in the early 1960s. The LaBasses have tried to reinvent themselves among the vacationing bourgeoisie of the Riviera, where Sagesse's grandfather Jacques has built the Hotel Bellevue. Jacques, however, is a tyrant with a temper: One night he fires his rifle into a group of teenagers swimming in the hotel pool. The bullet not only wounds Sagesse's friend, it destroys her social life, humiliates her family and begins unraveling the myth of the family's indestructibility.

Their problems, however, begin well before the gunfire. Exile -- whether forced or self-imposed -- haunts the LaBasses and the novel. Sagesse's mother, Carol, a meek Massachusetts expatriate, sports tight chignons and Louis Vuitton handbags as she tries to disappear into her adopted country: "Invisibility has always been vital to my mother; it is her cloak, her security. Was it Flaubert who said that 'Not to be like one's neighbor -- that is everything'? For Carol the inverse was true."

But at least Carol has chosen her exile. In flashbacks to Algiers in the 1960s, Messud describes Sagesse's father, Alexandre, an idealistic young man who clings to Algeria -- his home -- throughout the country's war with France. But as France withdraws from Algeria, Alexandre has little choice but to follow his parents in flight. By the late 1980s, when Sagesse is an adolescent, Alexandre's life stacks up to a series of misfortunes and failures: His marriage is empty; his son, Etienne, is disabled; and he himself is a mediocre businessman employed by his father. His only relief is a string of nameless mistresses.

Learning of the affairs, Sagesse chooses sides. And the domestic scenes between her and her parents deliciously evoke the anger of a tenacious adolescent hungry to unveil the family secrets. But Sagesse's adult voice enriches the novel, too; when she is older she sees her parents as more than one-dimensional players in her own story. Though Messud's prose can be needlessly dense, through Sagesse she gets at the stain of exile and at the complexity and disappointment of the truth:

When I was a little girl, I had believed that if you looked long and hard enough at a picture you might enter into it, leave behind the faded furniture of everyday and walk in oil-bright fragrant glades among eighteenth-century picnickers, or join windblown fishermen along some ageless rocky shore. I didn't muse on how one might get back from within the frame, just stood and willed and waited for another story, another life, to begin around me.

The painting Sagesse had chosen showed the Bay of Algiers before the war -- she had longed to leap into it and change the historical events that set her family on its painful course. But "The Last Life" doesn't allow for tidy endings or epiphanies. And by the time Sagesse has become an adult, she doesn't, either.

By Maggie Jones

Maggie Jones has written for New York, Mirabella and the Philadelphia Inquirer. She lives in Los Angeles.

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