I don’t think Voice Over is an apt translation of the original French title Voix sans issue. The literal meaning is ‘voice without issue’. And while I can see how clunky that would be as a title, it has meanings that aren’t implicit in Voice Over.
The un-named central character is an anonymous young woman in Paris. Her job is to announce train departures and arrivals at Gare du Nord, one of six terminus stations in Paris – and it is huge. It serves the urban Metro and regional train services in Northern France, and is also the international train station for UK, German and Belgium destinations. It’s where you arrive if you take the Eurostar from London, and – even if you are a seasoned traveller – the sheer size, the noise, and the frenetic movement around you can seem quite overwhelming. It’s the busiest train station in Europe. Wikipedia says it serves 190 million travellers each year, second only to Japan.
This young woman’s voice is broadcast over the hustle and bustle, both part of the noise which travellers ignore, yet also listened to intently when it’s their platform details they need to hear. (A bit like the safety demo on planes, only the newbies are listening, everyone else goes on playing with their iPads.) My recollection is that all announcements at Gare du Nord are in French – another reason for me to practice my numbers en français – but many international travellers don’t speak French so they’re not even listening to hear if they need to listen. So hers is a voice that travels over the hubbub without much impact, without issue. And work is the only place that anyone listens to her at all.
Written in the third person but entirely from this young woman’s point-of-view, Voice Over is a claustrophobic sort of novel, describing only her chaotic thoughts and feelings, and her bizarre actions. There was a moment when I thought, oh no, not another damaged-by-child-abuse novel, because there are scenes in her fractured relationships that are terminated by her memories of what she calls her ‘rite of passage’, but there is more to it than that. Her habit of disassociating herself from events as if she is an observer of her life rather than a participant in it is perhaps a coping strategy, but she is not wholly defined by this event in her life. She fluctuates between passivity and trying to take control, but all her pitiful strategies are ineffective…
It is not just because she has fallen for an unavailable man and his woman Ange is drop-dead gorgeous. (And nice, too. It is she who invites the young woman to join her gatherings). The inconclusive meetings that she has with him go nowhere, but her other assignations go nowhere too. And just as well: she lets herself be drawn into some risky situations, and she provokes the sleaze Maxime into being more than totally obnoxious by announcing at Ange’s dinner party that she’s a prostitute. She often says totally inappropriate things and she knows that people think she’s weird. She tells unnecessary lies all over the place, she shoplifts, she drinks far too much, and she creates problems for herself with her endless introspection and trying to second-guess what others will say and do.
So she’s not a character with whom one can easily identify. She is a self-destructive lost soul in a vast anonymous city, an anti-hero in the City of Love. The author forces readers to confront their fantasies about Paris by demolishing the image of the confident sexy Frenchwoman. Her face is interesting enough for a photographer to pick her up in a bar so that he can use her for his fruit photos, but she isn’t beautiful, she isn’t chic, she isn’t witty and she isn’t desirable enough for anybody to really want her. The city couldn’t care less about her.
And it all ends badly, of course.
Nominated for both the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and Best Translated Book Award in 2009, Voice Over was Celine Curiol’s debut novel. Wikipedia tells me that she has since published three further titles, but they don’t appear to be available in English.
Author: Céline Curiol
Title: Voice Over
Translated from the French by Sam Richard
Publisher: Faber & Faber, 2008, first published as Voix sans issue, 2005
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond.
Fishpond: Voice Over