Claudel's novel (also available in English translation under the title Grey Souls) combines a mystery story - three young women will die during the course of the novel - with an extended contemplation of the workings of memory and the nature of truth. Set in a village close to the front in World War I, the novel is narrated by the local gendarme, who is professionally involved in two of the deaths. These two deaths - a murder and a suicide - will come to affect him as profoundly and as personally as the death of his wife Clémence in childbirth, and the unravelling of the cause of the deaths forms the structure of the novel.
Our narrator is attuned to the workings of hierarchy in French society in general and in the justice system in particular. The caste separations between the semi-aristocratic or professional classes and the peasant/servant class are marked, but are being challenged by the effects of war and of the early twentieth century in general. The narrator exemplifies this: he comes from peasant stock, but his work brings him into the world of the bourgeoisie, and he watches it defend itself against intruders, dismissing and abusing the proletarians that pass through its machinery. The village he lives in is curiously untouched by the war; columns of soldiers pass through, and many young men have vanished, but enough are in trades that exempt them from war service. There is a new hierarchy to be negotiated, separating those who have fought and died in the war from those remaining at home.
He also grapples with the slippery nature of memory and the elusiveness of truth. On the first page, he speaks of "calling forth a lot of shadows"; the figures of memory can be insubstantial and two-dimensional, yet the narrative makes the key figures of the story vivid on the page. He points up his own unreliability, yet throughout the narrative there are literal and metaphorical loaded guns, waiting to go off in the third act, that will both reinforce and subvert his assumed lack of control of his story.
It almost goes without saying that this book is profoundly sad. Both plot and narrative style work to develop an air of melancholy, ennui and a fatalistic lack of agency that infects key characters with profound lassitude. Because of this, I found it rather difficult to read for long periods, and had to approach it in short bursts. Probably not a book to be picked up during low periods, but definitely one worth reading during happier times.