Book Review: People Like Them by Samira Sedira (trans. Lara Vergnaud)

About the Book:

Winner of the Prix Eugène Dabit

There are no monsters. Only humans.

Anna and Constant Guillot and their two daughters live in the peaceful, remote mountain village of Carmac. Everyone in Carmac knows each other, leading simple lives mostly unaffected by the outside world – that is until Bakary and Sylvia Langlois arrive with their three children.

The new family’s impressive chalet and expensive cars are in stark contrast with the modesty of those of their neighbours, yet despite their initial differences, the Langlois and the Guillots form an uneasy friendship. But when both families come under financial strain, the underlying class and racial tensions of their relationship reach breaking point, culminating in act of abhorrent violence.

With piercing psychological insight and gripping storytelling, People Like Them asks the questions: How could a seemingly ordinary person commit the most extraordinary crime? And how could their loved ones ever come to terms with what they’d done?

Lullaby meets Little Fires Everywhere, this intense, suspenseful prize-winning novel explores the darker side of human nature – and the terrible things people are capable of.

Published by Bloomsbury Publishing – Raven Books
Released 3rd August 2021

My Thoughts:

Inspired by a true story of a mass homicide committed in 2003 in a village in France’s Haute-Savoie region (Author Note). What an excellent novel this was. It tells the story of a man who murders the family next door, but as reflected upon by his partner, Anna, who through her narration is clearly trying to make sense of what has happened, if that is even at all possible after such a tragedy. I found Anna’s voice arresting, her story gripping, the way in which she took us back to before, painting a picture of her partner, the man he was before the man he became known as. In doing so, she moves us through the motivation, bears witness to his unravelling, and then finds herself sitting in a courtroom, the facts of the case dissected before her, her partner, the father of her children, unable to fully defend himself, almost unable to even follow his own trial coherently. This novel is very much Anna’s story, of how his crime has impacted upon her life, as well as her children’s and his parents. Her voice is relatable, she is a nice woman, someone I would easily be friends with. Together, Anna and her partner, Constant, were nice people. Everyone said so. No one saw it coming. No one ever does.

‘A murderer’s wife is reproached for everything: her composure when she should show more compassion; her hysteria when she should demonstrate restraint; her presence when she should disappear; her absence when she should have the decency to be there; and so on. The woman who one day becomes the murderer’s wife shoulders a responsibility almost more damning than that of the murderer himself, because she wasn’t able to detect in time the vile beast slumbering inside her spouse. She lacked perceptiveness. And that’s what will bring about her fall from grace – her despicable lack of perceptiveness.’

Casual racism abounds in the village of Carmac and People Like Them is a psychological study on this as a motivator for crime. Bakary Langlois is the only person of colour in Carmac, wealthy, outwardly so, somewhat ostentatious with it. From the outset, he and his wife and their three children are viewed with suspicion. Part of this can be attributed to their wealth, but most can be attributed to the colour of Bakary’s skin.

‘Here, we laughed openly at Germans, because it was allowed – the war gave us that right. Same for the Dutch and the Belgians. We basically viewed them as an extension of the Germans. But we’d never had any Black people in Carmac.’

Bakary’s wife Sylvia is white, but the case is built around the murders being racially motivated. Bakary had stolen money from Constant (and others in the village) under the guise of an investment in a Swiss Banking scheme. When pressed to return the money, it became evident there was no such investment and, there was no longer any money. Constant maintained that this was his motivation: he murdered two adults and three children over the loss of eight thousand euros. The prosecution argued that there was more to it. That Constant felt entitled to murder Bakary and his family over eight thousand euros because Bakary was black and Constant was white. Sylvia and the children were simply collateral damage. For much of the novel, in the parts reflected back upon by Anna, we do see Constant riddled with jealousy over Bakary and all that he possesses, not just materially, but also the social standing and power his wealth affords him. In terms of the financial loss, Constant’s eight thousand euros is the least of the amounts gone; others lost far more and they were not possessed with a murderous rage that they acted upon, suggesting that there were other factors at play for Constant. The themes of entitlement running through this novel are thought provoking. The insidiousness of the casual racism and the way in which wealth created an instant divide; the novel has the most perfect title. It really does convey so much in so few words. You can almost hear the inflection of the sneer as you read it.

‘I don’t know if we’re all capable of killing with as much savagery as you had. I still don’t understand where it could have come from. That mystery will probably haunt me until the end. What I do know, however, is that no one around you was innocent. We stood back and let it happen. Like a chain reaction, each of us contributed to an outcome. A horrific act. A tragedy. Our tragedy. I also tell myself that maybe there were words that would have kept you from sinking, except we didn’t even know that we were losing you; we hadn’t understood that yet.’

The author does not attempt to garner sympathy for Constant, yet, she also doesn’t cast judgment upon him; he is all too human, possessing his own vulnerabilities and motivated by a complex jigsaw of thoughts, disappointments, emotions, and morals, all crashing together in a chaotic symphony of inexplicable tragedy. Anna is the star of this story, for me. I was so invested in her introspective processing of all that is happening and what this means for her life from here on in. People Like Them is another quality translation (I’ve read a few of late), the atmosphere conveyed with what I expect was the author’s intent. Once again, I didn’t feel as though I was reading a translation; this novel read as though it had been written in English. Translators are incredible, as not all words can be easily transcribed from one language to another; they do an immense job for which I am grateful for. We have access to so much more quality fiction on account of their efforts. This one is recommended to fans of crime and suspense, with a focus on the characters and their reactions to the fall out. We know what the crime is and who did it from the get-go. It’s the why that this novel focuses on, and more particularly, the what now for those who are left in the wake of the tragedy. A stunning work of fiction. I’d love to see more of Samira Sedira’s novels translated, her style and the depth within her work is exactly the sort of writing I crave.

☕☕☕☕☕

Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: People Like Them by Samira Sedira (trans. Lara Vergnaud)

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