What I learned from…’The Birthday Party’ by Laurent Mauvignier

The Birthday PartyAbout the book

Laurent Mauvignier’s tense thriller is set in a secluded hamlet in the heart of rural France where Patrice Bergogne, his wife Marion, daughter Ida and artist neighbour Christine live quiet lives. When Patrice plans a surprise birthday party for Marion, things take an ominous turn. The hamlet’s peace is shattered by inexplicable events. Anonymous, menacing letters arrive, and an unfamiliar car brings suspicion and unease.

As darkness descends, strangers haunt the houses, triggering a nightmarish sequence of events that threatens their lives.

What I learned

I read that The Birthday Party is a ‘thriller in slow-motion’ so I expected it to take a while to get into it, but it grabbed me from the first page. Mauvignier cranks up the sense of unease throughout the narrative until a shocking act of violence tips the reader into the unknown. From then, the established rules of the world are in question and the tension builds, becoming almost unbearable.

Mauvignier has written a book that’s a page turner and also an exercise in mounting dread. I saw a YouTube video recently by book editor Alyssa Matesic where she said effective suspense is most underrated element of fiction – whatever the genre. Mauvignier manages to draw it out over four hundred pages, with prose that reads like a stream-of-consciousness delivered by an omniscient narrator constantly relaying the thoughts of the characters. We’re both inside the action and observing from the eyes of each character, never knowing who to trust. This adds yet more tension to the writing.

A smoke – she needs a smoke – and it’s not even a thought she has, nor even a jolt that sends her away from the table to find the handbag she dropped at her feet by the door and that nobody has touched, as though it’s invisible or has blended in with the décor, but yet another way for her to flee, to buy a few seconds without showing that she’s fleeing; she’s simply escaping, for the time it takes to go to her handbag, lean over it and open it to take out her pack of cigarettes and find her lighter, obviously nowhere to be found – the lighter that’s slipped between two things but for fuck’s sake what do I keep in my handbag that I can never find anything in it?

The lack of full-stops adds to the intensity of the prose, with thoughts tumbling over one another constantly. It’s a slow-moving thriller, but the thought-based action comes thick and fast, and is sometimes overwhelming. Despite listening in to the characters’ thoughts, Mauvignier reveals only what we need to know in the moment, so the reader is further unnerved by not knowing what, or whom, to trust at any moment.

While stream-of-consciousness isn’t my style of writing, this book is a masterpiece in how to pull off some of the best use of psychic distance I’ve ever read.

More about this book

Published in 2023 by Fitzcarraldo Editions

The Birthday Party at Fitzcarraldo Editions

Laurent Mauvignier at www.thebookerprizes.com

About ‘What I learned…’

I read anything and everything and think there’s writing inspiration to take from from books of every genre.

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