O by Steven Carroll

To be published 3 February 2021

‘No one is allowed to escape the symbols of occupation until …what? Amnesia sets in and the country forgets itself?’

The novel opens in occupied France in 1943. Dominique Aury feels a desperate need to do something: she loves her country and simultaneously hates it. She wants work that is not German propaganda, and it is becoming harder to find each day. She meets Jean Paulhan. They become colleagues and eventually lovers. He is an older man, with a wife. She has been married and has a child. She has also changed her name. Dominique becomes caught up in the French Resistance and she helps a woman she knows only as Pauline Réage to escape. (Those who have read ‘The Story of O’ may recognise these names.)

‘Names are good like that, you can reinvent yourself with a new one.’

This novel is a meditative reflection on how a story comes to be written, and who and what it might really be about. In part, this novel is about Dominique as O, rather than ‘The Story of O’. In part it is about the occupation of France., and about memory of the past. Only a man, it was thought, could write such a story. Dominique sets out to disprove this and becomes enmeshed.

‘There is a young woman, known only as ‘O’, walking through a city park with her lover.’

Dominique intends the story for her married lover with no wider circulation, but it is published. And once published, the story is no longer confined. The private becomes public, knowledge is assumed.

‘It occurs to her that is what O is doing: consenting to be the possession of strangers.  And in this sense, in the event of publication, would she not become her character?

‘The Story of O’ has its own life quite independent of the author, it is part of O, it is part of France, it is part of the past. And what does it mean, when a story becomes detached from its context, when a private fairy tale becomes public property? And then, when, the author and recipient grow older, where does the fairy tale fit then?

‘But that’s the problem with the past. It never stays past.’

This is another beautifully written novel by Steven Carroll. The themes of the novel, of surrender, submission and shame apply to O and to France during this period. Both will move on, but the past cannot be ignored.

‘The lover for whom the love letter was written is gone. That world has passed. This one is not hers anymore.’

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and HarperCollins Publishers Australia for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes. 

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AussieAuthor2021