Review: The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau by Graeme MacRae Burnet

The Lady Vanishes

Don’t be fooled by the title of Graeme Macrae Burnet’s first novel. In the sleepy, transitory town of Saint-Louis, the titular vanishing waitress is merely the McGuffin introducing fastidious detective Georges Gorski to Manfred Baumann, a socially awkward creature of routine. Make no mistake, this book is all about men, and what a mess they become when unavoidable fate takes away their pride and sense of belonging.

The tale’s strongest suit is its realist clarity. As Gorski closes in on a crime Manfred may or may not have committed, Burnet’s sparse prosedeliversboth his attentive detective’s diminishing faith in procedure and his suspect’s increasing paranoia with equal and compelling precision. Bobbing along on a constant river of wine, coffee, cigarettes and lust, this mystery novel is undeniably French in flavour – if Dickensian in plotting. Given the accomplished realism of the prose, whether readers swallow how the characters’ obsessions metastasise relies on their generosity towards one important coincidence and two subsequent lapses in memory. It’s very much a trade-off: narrative leniency for the sake of two detailed and nuanced portraits of regret.

However, this straightforward telling also lays bare a chauvinistic streak. As an introduction, the timid Adèle endures three paragraphs of backhanded ogling that opens:

“She was a dark, heavy-set girl with a wide behind and large, weighty breasts… Her features were too heavy to be described as pretty, but there was an earthy magnetism about her.”

That’s it for characterisation; a few pages later she’s gone, with seemingly no family or friends to miss her; she exists as an excuse. Other female characters – Gorski’s nagging wife, Manfred’s inexplicable love interest Alice – receive only marginally more depth, at least in comparison to the obsessively examined protagonists. There is a degree of self-consciousness about this. Manfred, for example, freely confesses that before his fixation on the girl he “had never once wondered where [Adèle] lived… or what, if anything, went on in her head.” While you might not be expected to like borderline-predatory Manfred, Gorski’s sympathetic investigation suggests you are expected to forgive the character’s unchecked, destructive, perhaps accidental impulses.

Honestly? Not gonna happen. If the novel is indeed a translation of a 1982 cult classic, as implied by the short “Translator’s Afterword,” the lack of convincing female characters could be chalked up to the ‘original’ author’s dated sensibilities. This afterword also teases an expanded – and vastly more interesting – part for Alice in an imagined 1989 screen adaptation. Saraband Books even completes the post-modernist ruse with an authentic-looking online trailer. It’s all very clever, very knowing, but it’s difficult to shake the feeling we’ve missed out on a meatier tale. Perhaps if Burnet lay his translation device bare in the story itself, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau could be a very shrewd commentary on contemporary thrillers that voyeuristically thrive in earnest on sex, death and mental imbalance.

As it is, the afterword feels like a shield to protect the author from just these sorts of criticisms – though its believability is proof enough that Burnet is a gifted enough writer not to need it. He even cheekily recounts how the original, non-existent La Dispaition d’Adèle Bedeau received “favourable, though not rapturous” reviews, so he knows how good he is, or, at least, how good he could be. Despite this uncertainty Burnet has clever ideas, a tight, clear style and shows undeniable stamina when understanding and unpacking his characters. Let’s hope he doesn’t disappear just yet.

– Dangerous Beans


The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau by Graeme MacRae Burnet
Contraband, RRP £8.99, 244 pp

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