Book review: Au revoir là-haut – I love France #106


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Au revoir là-haut

Au revoir là-haut
In full compliance with FTC Guidelines,
I received this book for free in exchange
for a fair and honest review.
I was in no way compensated for this post
as a reviewer,
and the thoughts are my own.
Au revoir là-haut
Perre Lemaitre
Translated by Sorcha McDonagh
France Publication Date: August 2013

2013 Prix Goncourt
2013 Prix du roman France Télévision

Pages: 567
ISBN: 978-2226249678

historical fiction

Source: Received
from the publisher through
the Historical Novel Society


Buy this book

This book counts for the following Reading Challenges:

      books-on-france-14 New author challenge 2014 historical fiction


new eiffel 5

Last winter, I reviewed the historical novel Unravelled by M.K. Tod. Aware then of my interest in historical fiction and in everything French, Mary Tod and Lucinda Byatt, both members of  the famous Historical Novel Society, asked me to highlight for them some important recent French historical novel on the topic of WWI, because of the current anniversary. I thought right away about the 2013 recipient of the prestigious Prix Goncourt in France: Pierre Lemaitre, with Au revoir là-haut.
Then they got the idea to have me read the French novel and review it. I feel very honored that my contribution is getting included in the Issue 69 (August 2014) of the HNR Magazine. I am very grateful to Mary, Lucinda, and Albin Michel in Québec for sending me the novel for review.
Here is the link to my review for the HNR.
You can read here below my full review – it had to be shortened for the magazine. If you enjoy historical fiction, this is definitely a book you will want to read when it gets published in English by MacLehose Press in 2015

Pierre Lemaitre left aside his usual genre, thrillers, to launch into historical fiction. He hit the bull’s eye and won the prestigious Prix Goncourt with Au revoir là-haut. Not surprising. With raw, rough vocabulary and graphic writing, as the French know how to do, he produced a gritty picture of post World War I, highlighting how France focused on its fallen heroes while ignoring or even trying to get rid of cumbersome soldiers who barely made it.
The book opens just before the Armistice and ends a year after the end of the war. In between, the reader follows Albert and Édouard, who survived in amazing circumstances, and help each other reenter civil life. But the threatening shadow of Lieutenant d’Aulnay-Pardelle, a character à la Javert, is constantly looming over the two antiheroes.
I really enjoyed very much the writing of this fast-paced novel that reads like a thriller. It is “sauvage et primitif” like Pradelle (p.37) abrupt, cruel, and burlesque at times. It really helps to recreate the chaotic and nightmarish ambiance of the time.
I particularly liked how the narrator stands between the characters and the reader. He often addresses the reader, sharing impressions or inviting to reflection. It makes for a very direct and lively style. It also adds a feeling of barbaric detachment to what is going on and prevents readers from remaining neutral as well.

How could they anyway, as they discover the tragedy of the war, the apparently unnecessary waste of millions of lives butchered, the pain and ugliness it created in hearts and bodies (see Édouard’s half-destroyed face), and the greed and corruption of the military leaders. The scandalous traffic of corpses and graves is indeed historically documented, though being covered up by the French government in 1922.

  War Memorial 1 war memorial2
This is exactly what Édouard would have looked like!
War Memorial in Trévières, Normandy

“Si même les survivants n’ont plus d’autre ambition que de mourir, quel gâchis”. p.20
If even the survivors have no other ambition than to die, then what a waste!
[the translations are my own]

Add to this the awful conditions veterans had to face when coming back to civil life (hardly any money or clothes). And how some came up with spectacular swindles to take revenge on fate and injustice, with either total audacity for some or torturing moral dilemma for others.

 “N’ayant rien ni personne, pas même un chat, tout se résumait à lui, son existence s’était enroulée sur elle-même comme une feuille sèche autour d’un noyau vide” p. 383
He had nothing, no one, not even a cat. Just him. His life had curled on itself as a dry leaf around an empty pit.

The book is not only a historical fresco, but also a psychological and social portrait of the relationships between fathers and sons, at the country and family level.

At school in France, we had numerous history classes on WWI, but I don’t remember having been told that demobilization actually took place more than 3 months after the Armistice. I had not been made aware either of the mess to exhume hundreds of thousands of soldiers to rebury them in more convenient places, to allow farmers to use their lands again. Not to mention all the sanitary issues and the requests from families wanting the bodies of their loved ones back.

VERDICT: This raw historical novel will make you both recoil at the horror of WWI and its aftermath, and side with the wounded, especially two unforgettable characters fighting once more for life, friendship, love, and a decent future. A masterpiece, really worthy of the Prix Goncourt, it will be available in English translation in 2015.




Sur les ruines du plus grand carnage du XXe siècle, deux rescapés des tranchées, passablement abîmés, prennent leur revanche en réalisant une escroquerie aussi spectaculaire qu’amorale. Des sentiers de la gloire à la subversion de la patrie victorieuse, ils vont découvrir que la France ne plaisante pas avec ses morts…
Fresque d’une rare cruauté, remarquable par son architecture et sa puissance d’évocation, Au revoir là-haut est le grand roman de l’après-guerre de 14, de l’illusion de l’armistice, de l’État qui glorifie ses disparus et se débarrasse de vivants trop encombrants, de l’abomination érigée en vertu.
Dans l’atmosphère crépusculaire des lendemains qui déchantent, peuplée de misérables pantins et de lâches reçus en héros, Pierre Lemaitre compose la grande tragédie de cette génération perdue avec un talent et une maîtrise impressionnants. [provided by the publisher]



Pierre LemaitreDe Travail soigné à Sacrifices, en passant par Robe de mariée,
Pierre Lemaitre s’est imposé comme un des grands noms du roman noir français,
prix du Polar européen du Point,
prix Polar des lecteurs du Livre de poche,
prix du Meilleur polar francophone.

There are 2 fascinating videos with him on the publisher’s website, as well as a good size except and even an audio sample!

Sur internet

Dernières parutions



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25 thoughts on “Book review: Au revoir là-haut – I love France #106

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  4. Congratulations for having your review posted in HNR Magazine!

    Your commentary on this book is superb.

    The First World War was such a hideous conflict. We do not really hear enough about its aftermath.

    The psychological aspects of this book, as you describe them sound like they give it some great depth.


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  14. This calls to mind Drew Faust’s book This Republic of Suffering about some similar situations in the Aftermath of the U.S. Civil War. The sheer numbers of dead who had to be removed, exhumed, and reburied necessitated new methods and even new attitudes about death, especially when families worried about the last moments of their loved ones’ lives and the transition of their souls. Much correspondence from the front was meant to reassure families in these matters. I am interested in this book too, and glad it has now been translated to English.


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