Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 8, 2014

Valley of Grace (2009), by Marion Halligan

Valley of GraceIt’s two or three days since I finished reading Valley of Grace, and I’m still savouring the reading of it.  It’s always such a pleasure to read Marion Halligan’s novels … I save them up when a new one comes along and wait to read them in the same way that I save a box of expensive chocolates for just the right moment.

Valley of Grace is not the first of Halligan’s novels to be set in Paris.  The Golden Dress (1998) was too, but I hadn’t been there when I read it and though I loved the novel, its Parisian textures just added to the constant temptation to swap the mortgage for a suitcase.  Now, (having vanquished the mortgage) I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Paris three times, and Halligan’s lyrical descriptions make me want to sell up my dear little house that I took so long to buy – so that I might rent an apartment somewhere in that gorgeous city.  Halligan is a seductress with her pen…

Fanny is married to Gérard Tisserand who is a restorer of old buildings.  Halligan makes even this grubby renovation process seem romantic. Fanny’s father – a developer of modern buildings – had spoken disparagingly of Gérard but for Fanny it is love at first sight:

The building is not in some crooked street but in the rue St Jacques.  Fanny walks through the small oval place in front of the Val de Grâce and just past it is the building, eighteenth-century, five-storey, classical.  It is a wreck, in the process of being gutted.  A segmented orange worm descends from the top floor, a set of elongated bottomless buckets chained together, through which rubble is poured into a hopper in the street.  It rattles and crunches all the way until the final clanging arrival in the hopper, and quantities of dust arrive.   Gérard Tisserand Builder, says a banner hung from the balcony.

Against the façade is a ladder and she sees a man she supposes to be Gérard though not so swarthy, not so nuggety, run up it, balance on a windowsill, sway, lean out and look up, climb in.  Fanny pauses to read unseeing a plaque on the wall of the building next door.  Gérard appears again, walks along a windowsill, teeters.  Fanny’s heart teeters too. (p. 10)

Theirs is a loving marriage.  They make love a lot, but they haven’t yet made a baby, and Halligan captures Fanny’s anxiety without morbidly lingering over it.   Fanny is not the only one to want a baby: there are two same-sex couples in this novel, and Claude and Agnès want Luc and Julien to help them be parents too.   Then there is elegant Sabine, graciously complicit in her husband the Professor’s routine seduction of his female students: she submits to this in much the same way as she has submitted to all his other rules including that over the course of their long marriage there may never be any children to interfere with the Great Man’s Thinking.  But accidents happen and Sabine behaves in a way that startles her friend Cathérine, Fanny’s mother.  I was enchanted by this rebellion…

Not all babies are perfect, and not all babies are loved in this wise, tender and occasionally shocking novel.  And babies grow up to be children, who – like parents – can sometimes be remarkably cruel.  There is one little snippet, carefully observed, which notes the behaviour of a teenage girl towards her father’s new wife at a party.

Fanny saw a rather thin man in a biscuit-coloured suede jacket and a black silk skivvy talking to Patricia. He had a high bulbous forehead and tipped his head to one side as though the weight of it made him lean.  He spoke softly: Just have half a glass, it won’t kill you, just a couple of mouthfuls, … it wouldn’t hurt.

The girl shook her head. When she wasn’t sneering she was pretty but her mouth still turned down, her face was hard and obstinate.  It is her mission, Fanny thought, to make her father and his wife unhappy.  The father reached out his hand as if to put an arm round her shoulders but she flounced away. That knocked him off balance and the glass of red wine he was holding spilled over his jacket.  The soft suede sucked it up greedily.

Oh Papa, said Patricia, oh Papa, I am sorry, oh, the beautiful jacket…

He took a handkerchief out of his pocket and patted the stain.  It made no difference.

Shall I try, said Patricia, trying to take the handkerchief.  Perhaps we should put salt on it.

He shook his head. I will take it to the cleaner and either it will come back nearly as good as new or it will not.  It doesn’t matter.  It is just a jacket.  Other things matter so much more.

She bent her head, and when Agnès came past with shallow glasses of champagne she took one.  (p. 222-3)

Valley of Grace is a quiet, sensual novel, deceptively so.  The rich tapestry of characters are all people doing their best to find the contentment in their relationships that we all crave.  Their stories, composed in seven chapters, weave relationships together through family and friendship, with the relationships of mothers and daughters forming the underlying structure.  There are resolutions, and disappointments.  Paris for all its beauty has a sordid past, and sometimes the secrets of history must be painfully examined.

Sometimes there are no answers, but it is a deeply satisfying novel.

Quicker off the mark than me, Kim at Reading Matters reviewed it in 2010, and how nice it is to see that after all the admiring comments about the gorgeous book cover design, the designer herself drops by to introduce herself.  Sandy Cull from gogoginko is the genius behind it – I won’t repeat Kim’s description, except to say that everything about the design enhances the experience of reading the book.  Sue at Whispering Gums  reviewed it too, and like me, couldn’t resist quoting from Halligan’s delicious prose.

Valley of Grace won the ACT Book of the Year Award, and like all Halligan’s other novels, it’s won a place in my heart as well.

Author: Marion Halligan
Title: Valley of Grace
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 2009
ISBN: 9781741756944
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books $29.95


Fishpond: Valley of Grace


  1. Glad you managed to read this book Lisa, not surprised that you liked it! Thanks for the link back.


  2. Sounds lovely! I’ve just reserved it at the local library.


    • Hi Anna, how are you surviving the heat today? Inside with a nice book?


      • Been out for lunch for my birthday but planning a quiet afternoon – reading!


        • Happy birthday! All the best for a wonderful year:)


        • Happy birthday from me too, Anna. My husband and son both had birthdays last week.


  3. The Parisian atmosphere can be very beguiling but I would have thought after your Balzac feat you’d be all Parissed out! It does sound a rather wonderful book – on BBC radio they have two or three ongoing series of books being read aloud – this one sounds like a prime candidate


  4. PS – I can’t seem to get my comments to have clickable links on your site (sigh). It works on some sites but not others


    • How do you mean, Tom? do you mean that you’re added a comment with a URL and it doesn’t accept it?
      Because my settings (should) allow for one to go through for trusted commenters (like you) but if you add two, then they do through to moderation.


      • Are you commenting from an iPad Tom? I found for a while that if I commented on my daughter’s blog from the iPad it wouldn’t link, but from my laptop it would. Totally mysterious.

        Lisa. if you look at Tom’s comments you’ll see that you can’t click on his name and go to his blog- at least I can’t. I think that’s what he is saying.


        • Ah, I see what you mean …
          Another odd little Ipad/Windows gremlin!
          I’ve fixed it manually.


          • Yep, that’s what it seems. Tom will be pleased you fixed it.


            • Oh, yes, I like to follow the links back from people who’ve commented on the blogs I read, that’s how I’ve built up my network of bloggers to read and to trust.


              • Yes, me too. And you see people doing the same to you, don’t you.


    • I can’t understand it. When I first make a comment the username isn’t clickable . The one above seems to be now. Perhaps I’m just not seeing things properly. Ignore me!


  5. I haven’t read a Halligan in years. You’ve just whet my appetite for more with this lovely review.
    Thank you


    • Hello Brona, welcome, it’s nice to meet another fan of Halligan!


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