Review: The Years by Annie Ernaux — The Mistress of the House of Books

I was recently gifted by Annie Ernaux by my co-founder Yasmine. And by recently I mean last fall, but I’ve finally managed to get through some other books on my to-be-read pile and The Years was up next. Is anyone else manic like me and needs to read your books in the order you buy them/receive them? Oh, just me? Okay.

Ernaux has been on my radar for a while at this point, but I’d never read anything of hers. I knew that she was known for her memoirs and autobiographical pieces, right up my alley. I’m also always looking for contemporary French writers to practice. Contemporary, French, and female? Ernaux fit right in.

Now, I will preface this review by saying that my one regret is that I didn’t read The Years in its original French. The English version was a lot easier on my work-exhausted brain so that was helpful, but there were certain passages (and honestly, it was beautifully translated by Alison L. Strayer) that I would have preferred to read in the original text. The moral of the story is that if you can, always read the original. But, love you Yas for the great book gift.

The Years is not Ernaux’s debut novel, she published her first in 1974. All of her work blends together her own personal experiences as well as collective historical experiences to create heartbreakingly beautiful memoirs that take the reader by the hand and gently lead them through the passing of time. In The Years, in particular, the narrator’s “she” turns into us and one and we.

I recently found out that The Years is the first novel of Ernaux’s that is written in the third person. The book is Ernaux’s story, yet it is everyone’s story. The memoir spans from 1941 to 2006. Take a moment to think of everything that happened in that time period. The world was ripped open and sewn back together multiple times. The only way to deal with much of what happened was to become a “we.”

In a not-so-subtle way, The Years also condemns the rise of the capitalism and consumerism that came from the United States to France and the rest of the world after World War II. Ernaux describes this “new and improved” way of life as being forced on everything and everyone. There was no choice, and in the end, no one could remember how life was before buying and owning things was so important.

The novel is written in short vignettes and the paragraphs are stuffed with emotion and beautiful descriptions. Ernaux has a witty and almost snarky way of writing that jumps off the page and gets in your face. She is sarcastic and critical and so is her writing.

The book isn’t overtly feminist in the sense that the narrator is described as such. But, it does detail the arrival of the sexual revolution in the 1960s, how difficult it was to get access to safe and legal abortions, and the narrator leaves her husband at a time when divorce wasn’t the norm. Later in her life, she takes a much younger lover and allows herself to be an independent person, separate from her ex-husband and her children.

But, again, the book isn’t really about the narrator. It’s about us, the “we,” and our collective experience. And it feels nice to know that we’re not alone.

Originally published at https://www.themistressofbooks.com on February 5, 2021.

Musings on feminism, books, and human connections.

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