Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 28, 2015

Little Jewel, by Patrick Modiano, translated by Penny Hueston

Little Jewel
It’s not long since I read Paris Nocturne (Accident nocturne, 2003) but I think it’s best to read Patrick Modiano’s Little Jewel (La Petite Bijou, 2001) as a companion piece.  The books share common themes and a similar sense of angst, and while I wouldn’t suggest reading them one straight after the other, it’s easy to recognise the parallels that occur in the characterisation if you don’t leave it too long.

‘Little Jewel’ was the stage name of the narrator, Thérèse, a young girl abandoned as a child by her parents and all alone in Paris.  She ekes out a living by baby-siting a child as unwanted as she was herself, and drifts aimlessly in a city which is indifferent to her.  But one day she sees a woman in a yellow coat – a woman that she thinks might be her mother, even though she has been told that her mother died in Morocco twelve years ago.  This sighting provokes a stream of memories and a surge of fears that cripple her already fragile sense of self.

Like the unnamed narrator in Paris Nocturne, Thérèse is preoccupied by the past, and the novella has the same textural qualities as Suspended Sentences too.  To quote from my last review where I noted the similarities:

 There is the same dreamy quality, that same sense of an ill-defined menace, the same hint of an oppressive presence, the same half-light and mistiness that veils the night, and that same sense of confusion that inhibits action.  And the same elusive people and places that the narrator does not and cannot ever know.

Thérèse never knew her father, and has only disconnected memories of her mother.  She has vague memories of the places where she lived and went to school in her childhood, and she latches onto what she does know in order to try to resurrect the past in a meaningful way.  She’s not even really sure of her mother’s name because she seems to have had reasons to change it.   One of the most poignant scenes in the story comes when Thérèse is co-opted to appear in a film alongside her mother:

I had to lie on a bed, then sit up and say, ‘I’m scared.’  It was as simple as that.  Another day, I had to keep lying on the bed and flip through a photo album.  Then my mother came into the bedroom, wearing a diaphanous blue dress – the same dress she was wearing when she left the apartment on the evening after losing the dog.  She sat on the bed and looked at me with big sad eyes.  Then she caressed my cheek and leaned over to kiss me; I remember we had to do it several times.  In everyday life, she never showed the slightest bit of affection’ (p.124)

The paralysis of action that grips Thérèse stems from fear.  Fear of being alone, fear of crowds on the Metro, fear of being deserted again.  Fear of the live grenades that are said to be still in this post-war period, in the Fossombronne-la-Fôret. And sadly, although she has never seen this film in which her mother showed her the affection that she never showed in real life, she also fears that the film will deteriorate and then there will never be any proof that they were once together.

There are kindly characters who express concern for Thérèse – a translator at a radio station and a pharmacist – but her introspective manner and habit of telling lies makes this needy young woman hard to help.  When the pharmacist takes the girl under her wing, Thérèse betrays this woman’s motherly kindness because she fears connection as much as she fears loneliness.  What Modiano seems to be saying is that without remembrance, a quest for identity is doomed to fail.

Tony Messenger reviewed it too.

Author: Patrick Modiano
Title: Little Jewel (La Petite Bijou)
Translated by Penny Hueston
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2015
ISBN: 9781925240115
Review copy courtesy of Text.


Fishpond:Little Jewel




  1. I’ve read one Modiano myself and I *am* getting the feeling that there are recurring elements in his work. I just hope they don’t recur so much that the works all merge into one….


    • I know what you mean. I want to read the Occupation Trilogy, which was the work that brought him fame in France. I think that will be quite different.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Lisa, I checked out your write up as I have just published on the same book, first of all I want to say I liked your description and recognised all of the themes you included except Accident Nocturne which I haven’t yet read. I found however similarities to my last Modiano Rue des Boutiques Obscures. Happy reading


    • Hello Pat, nice to meet you:) It is so nice to find that there is a small but select group of bloggers discovering Modiano! I’m off to check out your post now…


  3. Yes, very similar books indeed :) I’m soon to try one in French (‘Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier’), so it’ll be interesting to see how it compares with these.


    • LOL Tony, my French is much improved but I’m not quite ready to read Modiano in the original yet!


      • Given how sparse his language is, you might be surprised ;)

        I’m also hoping to get a hold of a copy of the trilogy at some point. After that, I think I can safely say I’ve given him a fair go…


        • It’s the tenses I need to work on….


  4. […] Penny Hueston, translator of (amongst others) Little Jewel by Patrick Modiano […]


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