Year 5 / Book 16: Hell’s Gate

16) Hell’s Gate by Laurent Gaudé

So this is a strange and intriguing novella by Prix Goncourt-winning French novelist Laurent Gaudé – it starts out with a sort of fairly standard-ish character on something of a mission to avenge someone or something. It turns out the death he is seeking to avenge is, well, his own – and we are soon flash-backing to the moment when he is caught as a child in crossfire between some mafia gangs. The pain and anguish from that divides his parents who cannot come to terms with what has happened – nor find any sense of closure (the father, a taxi driver, can’t follow through on killing the man responsible); and soon the mother, Guiliana, leaves the city and town altogether.

As the novel keeps flashing between 1980 (the year of the killing) and 2002 (the year of the revenge mission), things start to become a bit clearer – and if they don’t, then the book’s title should give you a bit of a clue. The taxi-driving dad Matteo somehow hooks up with a professor, a café owner, a transvestite-prostitute and a maverick priest  – and between them they know of a way to get his son Pippo back….

Which as you might expect, involves them going (quite literally) to Hell and back. The scenes from the Underworld are amongst the best in the book, actually, and pretty powerful – matched only for power by the very real sense of a mother’s grief for her child earlier on in the book. Having become a little bored with the book mid-way through, these scenes held me gripped and they felt as ‘real’ as any other evocations of the after-life I’ve read.

All in all, it’s a strange book partly because it is a mix of genres: a crime-revenge meets after-life exploration meets marriage-breakdown combo. As a result, I do think it’s a bit uneven and the shifts around can be disconcerting and break up the novel unhelpfully. But there is something strangely memorable here too: the grief and remorse of Matteo & Guiliana is palpable, the escape from the depths thrilling and terrifying, and some of the philosophising moving this beyond a narrative-by-numbers. Gaudé can really write – and it makes me want to try some of his other work, to see if his skills are more effectively and consistently put to use.

Score: 7/10

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