Le Chateau by Sarah Ridout
Le Chateau (Echo Publishing 2016), a debut novel by Sarah Ridout, is an unforgettable story about a woman forgetting. Charlotte doesn’t remember her husband, Henri, or their five-year-old daughter, Ada. She doesn’t remember the century’s old chateau where she lives in the south of France, or its surrounding vineyard. And neither does she remember her imperious mother-in-law, Madame de Castanet, who occupies one wing of the chateau. Charlotte is amnesic after a mysterious accident that left her in a coma. Just like Dorothy in Ada’s favourite story The Wizard of Oz, Charlotte must find her way home to the family she is told is hers but is one she neither knows nor trusts.
The unfamiliar and disquieting chateau that Charlotte returns to adds to her sense of alienation and displacement. It’s cold, worn steps, dark rooms and empty, unused spaces remind readers of Daphne du Maurier’s Mandeley in Rebecca. The plot in Le Chateau is built around a comparable mystery: What happened to Rebecca? What happened to Charlotte? From beginning to end, readers are taken on an atmospheric journey of discovery where no one and nothing is as it seems in this suspenseful novel.
As Charlotte recuperates from her accident she must try and piece together the mysteries of her life, which she does with the help of Australian compatriot and friend, Susannah. Their pithy dialogue quickly builds character and highlights elements of the languid Australian culture compared to that of the more formal French one, as expected under Madame’s watchful and critical eye.
But even with Susannah’s help, voids in Charlotte’s memory persist and she continues to struggle with trust. Is Henri, who seems caring and kind, really the man Charlotte once loved? If so, why is she wary of him? Or does she love her handsome Irish neighbour, Ryan Carter, whom her mother-in-law tartly suggests Charlotte had an affair with? But just as Charlotte starts to gradually piece together events prior to her accident, she is shaken by news that adds to her vulnerability and presses her need to find out more, and quickly.
There are interesting correlations with real life in Le Chateau. Charlotte’s disconnection to place and people is reflective of the expat’s life; the alienation that non-nationals feel when cultural and traditional knowledge – knowledge which often runs generationally deep – is inaccessible to them. But equally, Charlotte’s amnesia also reflects the desire we have to erase those arguments and disappointments we inflict upon those we care for, and those that are inflicted upon us. In Le Chateau, Charlotte has the seductive opportunity to remain ignorant to any imperfections that might have existed in her marriage to Henri. The only trouble is, in not being able to remember or trust in her prior actions, or the motives and actions of those around her, puts Charlotte at risk of losing everything.
What remains true for her though is the quick and easy love she once again feels for Ada, her daughter. It reminds us of the power of blood ties and those instinctive forces that connect mother and child. And in Charlotte’s case, this means protecting Ada at all cost even though unsure of the forces she is protecting her against.
Ridout writes about France with such rich detail that it is clear from the first pages that here is a writer who knows something of the life she describes. Her descriptions of the seasonal changes of a working vineyard through to the heady scents of bouillabaisse, lapin à la moutarde and tarte aux pommes, allow readers to draw on all of their senses as they imagine the exotic setting she’s created. We see the rolling countryside, witness ghoulish pagan festivals, hear the calls of santé when wine glasses clink. And the smatterings of French Ridout uses throughout her novel are light-handed and rarely require translation. They also bring a lyricism to the dialogue, matched by her many references to the music of David Bowie and the poetry of Pablo Neruda.
Le Chateau is a sensual and sexy romance. It draws on Gothic tropes, which bring a deep sense of foreboding to its deliciously evocative and authentic French setting. Readers will be kept guessing right to the end as Charlotte unravels the mysteries and implications of her past, which run much deeper than the five years that have been displaced from her memory.