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This review is taken from PN Review 59, Volume 14 Number 3, January - February 1988.

WORRYING LAUGHTER Marguerite Duras, The Sea Wall (Faber and Faber) £4.95 pb.

Marguerite Duras has never wasted words. Her third novel, Un Barrage contre le Pacifique, published in French in 1950, was an early vehicle for the terse, neatly effective style brought to maturity in Moderato Cantabile (1957). Normally grouped in the trio of 'traditional' novels with which she began her career (Les Impudents, 1943 and La Vie tranquille, 1944), Un Barrage begins to develop a prose which, though impassive on the surface, is actually a highly sprung coil waiting at the slightest touch to release ironies and passions with reverberations on many levels. Here we see a careful balancing of narration and dialogue, so that the direct, colloquial speech of the characters is always rich with latent tensions and counter-tensions of which we are made aware through the narrator (Duras herself, in quasi-autobiographical vein). And yet there is no linguistic game-playing, no structural fragmentation, no sense of artifice; Un Barrage catches Duras's prowess at its freshest and most naturalistic.

The novel tells the story of a widowed former school-teacher in a French/Malayan colony in the 1920s and her children, Joseph (aged 20) and Suzanne (17). Like many once-hopeful expatriates, this single-parent family has become disillusioned, poor, and dispossessed, living in a bungalow by the sea on a plot of mostly irreclaimable land, unable to grow crops due to the annual sea-floods. If the family cannot sustain a harvest, the local land agents threaten to reclaim the plot in order to offer it to new tenants on the pretence ...


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