Laurent Mauvignier, The Birthday Party, translated by Daniel Levin Becker (Transit Books), 464 pp. Paperback, $18.95.

All the action in Laurent Mauvignier’s The Birthday Party takes place in a single weekend. Just outside the small town of La Bassée, a village of three thousand, is a rural hamlet of just a few buildings that goes by the name of the Three Lone Girls Stead (L’Écart-des-Trois-Filles-Seules). And, in addition to the middle-aged farmer Patrice Bergogne, three lonely ladies do indeed call it home: Marion, Patrice’s wife, who turns 40 on Sunday; Ida, their young daughter; and Christine, an elderly painter who lives next door.

The trouble begins when a couple of strange men pull into the hamlet Sunday afternoon and murder Christine’s dog, just before Patrice returns from an errand to set up the surprise party for his wife. But then again, the trouble had begun much earlier. Patrice is a poor schlump who has fallen into debt—and into resentment at his wife for her lack of sexual interest in him. Marion’s past is mysterious; a Parisian, she was running from something when she found Patrice through an online dating service and quickly moved in. And Christine is also out of place. Why would a haughty cosmopolitan artist choose to live out here in the middle of nowhere, with only French rubes and rednecks for neighbors?

To the extent that it requires a label, The Birthday Party is a “thriller.” The men that arrive at the hamlet are violent, and the reader only very slowly learns why they have come and what they want. It’s a beautiful novel but also a menacing one—the Pinteresque title (a good substitution for Mauvignier’s Histoires de la nuit) slyly suggests a “mixture of looming revelry and looming terror.”

What a reader notices first, however, is Mauvignier’s preference for extremely lengthy, complex, and psychologically interrogative sentences. The novel’s English translator, Daniel Levin Becker, has remarked on the challenges of rendering these “long and tortuous sentences unbothered by conventional methods of delivering or sequencing information.” As a result, critics have inevitably labeled Mauvignier’s style Proustian. Lee Langley, for example, calls the novel “a Stephen King thriller hijacked by Proust.”

But The Birthday Party isn’t really like À la recherche du temps perdu. It’s much more like Ian McEwan’s Saturday—maybe with a dash of Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman Is in Trouble. Mauvignier’s long sentences at first seem languid, but they gradually develop an intensity, a slow acceleration ultimately resulting in terrific speed and force. For instance, here is a description of Ida looking at her father’s body as he confronts the strange men who have come to the hamlet:

This is a man with not just the density of all the muscles underneath the fat, no, but also the density released by all his bottled-up energy, all the untapped power his customary gentleness seems to hold in—and even though she’s not afraid of him because she knows how much he loves her, how much his entire being is drawn to protect her, Ida also knows he could snap her in half without even trying, and this is what both of them are thinking, not that Patrice could be in danger, certainly not, but that it’s the two others, Christophe and the young blond guy, who might regret having come.

Writing for the New York Times, Martin Riker praises Mauvignier’s prose for its “scrutinizing slowness.” But the opposite could be said just as easily; the twisting and turning sentences more often suggesting rapidity, an anxious scanning of the surroundings.

And the same is true of the novel as a whole. While it begins without much suspense—seemingly an account of a small-town marriage that has lost its excitement (as in the short excerpt published in the February 2023 issue of Harper’s Magazine)—it incrementally reveals surprising and essential details, gradually unveiling “the secrecy of a story that has sprung up monstrous and wild.” Mauvignier’s most powerful literary skill is his pacing. With each successive chapter, the novel becomes harder and harder to put down. It concludes as a gripping tale of betrayal and escape.

As Proustian as it may at first seem, it’s not hard to imagine Mauvignier’s novel as a Western, a good-versus-evil showdown in a remote corner of a rough world.

Levin Becker’s rendering of Mauvignier’s French is impressive for its ability to capture a compelling style. Some of the choices for idiomatic language in English feel odd—from “that’s the way the cookie crumbles” to “ride or die,” or the choice to refer to prison as “the hoosegow.” At one point there’s a reference to “cheese bacon burgers.” But we also learn that the men who come to the hamlet use “ridiculous and stupid phrases” and that they speak with a regional accent “that makes their French sound like a foreign language.” The jarring expressions seem designed both to make the reader uncomfortable and to emphasize the unpolished qualities of the violent strangers.

But the women—the three lone girls—are more formidable than the visitors realize. The women are in charge here. They control the men. Patrice is completely in their power, and the hamlet’s invaders get much more than they bargained for. Marion, Christine, and even little Ida frequently hold the others in contempt, seeing each man “as unappealing as a shriveled fruit on a windowsill.” They will not be cowed into submission.

While The Birthday Party is set in rural France, it could just as easily be set in a compound in the Nevada desert. It features a small, isolated cast of characters who will protect each other and defend their homestead against the encroachments of the bad guys. As Proustian as it may at first seem, it’s not hard to imagine Mauvignier’s novel as a Western, a good-versus-evil showdown in a remote corner of a rough world.

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